Our Children Need Us to Bring the Pandemic Under Control: Only Then Can Public Schools Fully Reopen

Widespread disarray as schools struggle to figure out how to reopen is a catastrophe we have permitted to occur this summer as we all watched. Most of us failed to pay enough attention. On some level, I have begun to worry that, in the midst of all the current partisan political upheaval and the stress of the pandemic, America has forgotten to care enough about our children.

State budgets, which are a primary funder of U.S. public education, collapsed last spring due to a COVID-19 recession. On May 15, to shore up state budgets and public education, the U.S. House passed the HEROES Act, but the U.S. Senate is only now taking up the bill. President Donald Trump has denied the seriousness of the pandemic and failed to coordinate a plan to bring infection levels under control. School leaders have been left scrambling just weeks before school is supposed to start.  Will students be in school full time, or will they learn online as they did last spring, or will schools be forced to create hybrid in-person/online schedules to ensure social distancing in classrooms and on school buses?

Do we in America value our children?  Do we need a reminder of the vision the American philosopher John Dewey described in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.  All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Suddenly in the past couple of weeks, the reopening of public schools this fall has become a big deal, because school district leaders are up against a deadline. But all summer, we just sort of forgot to pay attention. With Congress back in session this week, money for starting school this fall is part of a coronavirus relief bill being debated, but it seems agreement may take several weeks. If Congress finally appropriates billions of dollars, when will the money become available for superintendents to hire teachers and school districts to retrofit ventilation systems?  Nobody knows.

Yesterday, in an analysis published jointly by the NY Times and Chalkbeat, Chalkbeat‘s editor Sarah Darville summarizes what many do not fully grasp: the complexity of reopening public schools this fall:  “Of all the American institutions the pandemic has shut down, none face pressure to reopen quite like schools do. Pediatricians exhort schools to open their doors whenever possible or risk developmental harm to kids. Working parents, particularly mothers, are in crisis, worried about having to leave the work force altogether in the absence of a place to send their young children each day. And President Trump is campaigning for schools to reopen, threatening to withhold funding if they don’t.  The pressure has mounted as school districts have made it clear that they can do no such thing. Across the country… schools are preparing their students and staffs for a continuation of the ‘remote learning’ that began in the spring. In New York City and Chicago, where the virus is more under control, schools are moving toward a hybrid option with remote learning some days, in-person school others. Even in places like Detroit and Memphis, where districts plan to offer in-person school for those who want it, local leaders could change course if the virus cases rise…. The people left to figure it out are superintendents, school board members, teachers and parents, for whom that simple word ‘reopen’ actually entails a dizzying array of interlocking problems.”

Here is how Darville describes what schools do: “Let’s start with child care, which translates, at the barest minimum, to providing every child with a safe place to go so their patents can work and so that they can learn. For schools to play that role, they require two basic ingredients, sufficient physical space and willing and capable adult caregivers… In addition to child care, there is food—another resource schools provide that is both much more necessary and much harder to deliver because of the pandemic.  In normal times, U.S. public schools provide 30 million free or nearly-free meals a day… Our failure to get schools fully open means that meeting students’ mental health needs is even harder. And organizing hybrid schedules or remote learning may sap energy that schools need to serve students’ continuing needs.”

Near the end of her summary, Darville comes to the issue of the necessary funds to open schools safely and at the same time ensure that staff are not laid off in the midst of the serious recession that is currently depleting state school budgets: “Making schools functional will also take money, as states are facing projected shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion over the next three years thanks to the spiraling pandemic.”  Darville cites data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Two other organizations have made serious attempts this summer to raise public awareness about the severity of the fiscal crisis: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Nearly three-fourths of the way through her article, Darville reminds readers about the educational role of public schools: “If taking on the child care, food, and the mental health challenges facing American children this fall were not enough, there is also, of course the matter of making sure those children learn.  Providing any form of education this fall means reckoning with an extraordinary version of what educators call ‘summer slide.’… Heading into this school year, these constraints are profound.  After school buildings closed this spring, teachers offered various forms of substitute education from paper packets to video classroom gatherings.  Nevertheless, a small but significant share of students went totally unaccounted for as they struggled to connect to online lessons without reliable internet, took on child care responsibilities for younger siblings, or just tuned out without the familiar support of teachers and counselors. Over all, the best estimates from teachers are that six in 10 students were regularly engaged in their coursework.”

Darville does a good job of summarizing a mass of concerns, but I don’t think she conveys what many of us worry will be missing this fall when too many children will be unable to be back in school full time with their teachers.  Schools are institutions where adults care for children, but it isn’t merely a matter of emotional support or free lunches or childcare that enables parents to go to work.

In a new blog post this week, Mike Rose, the UCLA education professor and fine education writer, explores the pedagogical implications of What It Means to Care. Rose explains: “Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, the care in teaching is a special kind of care, one that, among other qualities, has a significant instructional and cognitive dimension to it. When we watch the teachers I present, we see that their care includes a commitment to help their students develop as readers and writers and thinkers.”

Rose shares a passage from Possible Lives, among the most profound and inspiring books written about education.  Rose wrote Possible Lives to share four years of visiting and observing fine classrooms across the United States.  In the book he reflects on the qualities of the excellent teachers he observed. In the passage Rose shares in his blog post this week, he describes a visit to a school in the border town of Calexico, California: “The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third grade bilingual education teacher who is also a mentor to first-year teachers at her school… One more person mentioned here is Evangalina Bustamonte Jones, a professor of education at the satellite campus of San Diego State University located in Calexico, and one of my wise and patient guides through the Calexico schools.”

Rose describes Elena Castro’s determination to demand much from her students and always to make school more challenging. He describes a very simple way Castro demonstrates how much she cares about a student’s learning: “Elena was working with a group of students on their marine research when Alex walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: he needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: ‘No.’ No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character. She was masterful at extending a child’s knowledge at every turn of the classroom day.”

Rose continues, affirming the capacity of good public school teachers to counter biases and stereotypes that limit children: “There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated… Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people.”  Rose continues, describing Castro’s classroom: “The majority of the children I saw in her classroom had entered in September with the designation ‘low achiever’ or, in some cases, ‘slow learner.’  Elena’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence. ‘The first two weeks, it was difficult,’ she explained… ‘I’d put them here (at the Writer’s Table) to write—and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say… I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them.  But… look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.’  Her room was constructed on work and opportunity.”

The public conversation this month about reopening school in the midst of what is still a raging pandemic omits the kind of reflection Rose provides about the real meaning of education. We need to insist that policymakers do everything possible to ensure that students can return soon to full-time, in-person school. It isn’t a mere matter of the need for childcare or school lunches. Rose describes the kind of caring teacher every child needs.  It cannot happen remotely or via ZOOM.

Public schools cannot fully reopen, however, until the pandemic itself is brought under control.

School Districts Need Budget Relief as School Starts Amid Pademic: U.S. Senate Must Pass HEROES Act

Here we are in mid-July.  Facing enormous challenges, school district leaders are trying to figure out how they can safely provide school this fall. Here are the two biggest questions:

  • How can schools be reopened safely as COVID-19 is now raging across many states and local hot spots?
  • What funds—in the midst of recessionary state budget shortfalls—will be available to plan for staffing levels, programming, and safety precautions during the pandemic?

While the news this past week has been filled with reports about school districts’ reopening plans (here and here.), next week the U.S. Senate will return from recess and begin to debate the HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 15.

The proposals on the table involve confusing estimates of the massive dollars involved and the debate has become highly politicized. However, there is no question that school districts are going to need more money. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “State and local tax revenues have crashed in recent months due to massive layoffs, business shutdowns, and social distancing measures to fight the virus… We estimate that state budget shortfalls will total about $555 billion over fiscal years 2020-2022, a sharper drop than even the worst years of the Great Recession of a decade ago—not including the added costs to fight COVID-19… In the Great Recession, states relied disproportionately on budget cuts to close their shortfalls, and they’ll almost certainly follow a similar path without more federal aid.  State and local governments are already starting to cut services and furlough or lay off teachers… and other public workers.”

Chalkbeat’s Kalyn Belsha reports on several reasons the CARES Act, an early relief bill passed by Congress in March, is inadequate to the current education funding crisis. She reports that Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director of the Committee for Education Funding calls the CARES Act a mere ‘down payment’ which barely begins to cover funding necessities.” “Congress set up the main $13.2 billion emergency education fund in the CARES Act to quickly help school districts and charter schools pay for new costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Districts don’t get all of that money; state education agencies can keep 10%, and districts have to set aside some money for private schools in their area.”

Belsha adds: “It’s widely acknowledged that the CARES Act isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of what schools will need to operate in the coming school year and beyond, especially because many districts are likely to see their budgets slashed as local and state tax revenue falls… (I)n several states, the CARES Act dollars will mostly go toward making up for state budget cuts to education. That’s the case in Georgia, New York and Texas.  Just south of Atlanta, Clayton County Public Schools, which serves about 54,000 students, nearly all of whom come from low-income families, is getting $17.5 million from the CARES Act. That will go toward Chromebooks, Wi-Fi for students, and staffing costs, says Superintendent Morcease J. Beasley. But Georgia also cut Beasley’s budget by about $45 million, essentially wiping away those federal dollars and more. To make up the difference, Beasley said his district had to freeze staff salaries, dip into its savings, and cut school operations by about 15%.”  School districts across the country face the same dilemma.

Belsha adds that many school districts have not yet been able to access the CARES Act dollars they have been promised: “Schools are only just starting to tap this money. Buy the end of May, about 1% of that $13.2 billion had been spent… That hasn’t changed much yet.  Figures provided by state education agencies indicate that in Delaware, Illinois, and Virginia, districts and charter schools have been reimbursed for less than 1% of the money available to them.  In some places it’s higher: Montana schools have spent and been reimbursed for about 4%, while South Carolina schools have spent about 7%.  Kansas schools have spent and been reimbursed for about 9%.  Part of that is because it’s taken time for the money to reach districts.  States had to apply to the federal government for their share, and school districts generally had to apply to their states, which is typical for a large federal grant program. In many states, school districts also have to seek approval as they spend the money.”

For Education Week, Daarell Burnette II and Madeline Will explain the likely consequences if Congress fails to appropriate enough to ensure that school districts can continue paying teachers despite an expected precipitous drop in state funding: “(S)tate income and sales tax revenue has plummeted, and, without a sizeable Congressional bailout, tens of thousands of teachers are at risk of losing their jobs in the coming months. Georgia’s state legislature, for example, cut more than $950 million out of its K-12 budget last month. And Nevada’s state legislature this month is debating a proposal to cut out of its budget more than $156 million, almost a quarter of the state’s K-12 public school spending.” In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine made an administrative cut of $300 million out of the FY 2020 budget for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, and school districts expect significant additional cuts from the FY 2021 budget that covers next school year.

The debate beginning next week when the U.S. Senate returns is likely to be contentious. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reports that Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has said he estimates K-12 public schools and colleges and universities need an additional $50 or $75 billion, which is far less than the $90 billion the HEROES Act, passed in May by the House of Representatives, allocates for a state stabilization fund dedicated to education. A more generous Senate bill introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) includes $200 billion for states to support public schools.  Clearly we can anticipate intense negotiation in Congress during the next two weeks.

The clearest justification for passage of the HEROES Act is described in an analysis by the National Education Association, which calculated what is likely to be lost from each state’s general revenue fund over Fiscal Years 2020, 2021, and 2022, and how those losses will affect each state’s education budget for K-12 public education. NEA projects large job losses. “States are experiencing a precipitous decline in revenues as a result of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Using current economic projections… NEA estimates that without additional federal emergency aid, state general fund revenues in support of education could fall by about $200 billion affecting about one-fifth of the education workforce after accounting for the use of state rainy day funds and funding available under the CARES Act… The HEROES Act, which has passed the House, would help stem some of the state revenue shortfall. It includes $90 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) dedicated to education, to remain available until September 30, 2022, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus… The grants to states under the SFSF are intended to maintain or restore state and local fiscal support for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education… NEA estimates that the SFSF would restore or save at least 825,000 jobs in elementary and secondary and higher education.”

During 2018 and 2019, we all watched a two year wave of teachers’ strikes across several states and cities to protest the educational impact of education job losses lingering from the 2008 Great Recession: classes of 40 students per teacher and shortages of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, nurses and certified librarians. It is unlikely that these educational concerns are driving President Trump’s threats to withhold federal dollars from school districts that refuse to open full time, five days a week next month. Washington Post White House reporter Philip Rucker and his colleagues speculate that President Trump’s sole concern regarding school reopening is economic: “After some economists advised Trump that the economy could not fully recover until schools reopen, because most parents need childcare to return to their jobs, the president suddenly made schools a focus.”  This is, of course, about the President’s reelection strategy.

Ironically, however, while President Trump seems to grasp the economic need for daily supervision of children during the school day, he seems not to have noticed another economic consequence if teachers and other staff are laid off due to state budget crises.  If he did understand, he would be pressuring Congress to be generous in its recessionary relief. Reuters reporter David Lawder lays out another part of the economic justification for Congressional passage of the HEROES Act when the Senate returns this week:  “K-12 schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.  Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle, and high schools compared to about six million in private schools… With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance, and insurance and transportation and warehousing. Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year…. That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021… The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12, 612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies. Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.”

Of course public schools’ primary importance is to nurture and educate the nation’s young people in institutions that are universally available, accessible for every child, and operated according to the law. However, if Trump is worried more about economics in the midst of the current recession, his best choice next week is to push Congress to negotiate a federal recessionary relief package that will support the nation’s public schools in the midst of what is expected to be a deep and long-lasting recession.

In a NY Times column on Wednesday, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke understands the need to support public education and to recognize the economic impact of those eight million education jobs across every city, suburb, town and rural area of the United States: “The coronavirus pandemic has set loose a recession of shocking speed and severity… As a member of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Restart and Recovery commission in New Jersey, I have worked to help put together an effective reopening strategy, one that not only will allow the state’s economy to move forward but also will address the glaring inequalities the pandemic has revealed. The experience has been eye-opening. It’s become abundantly clear that the responsibility for responding to the pandemic cannot lie only with local and state governments. Congress must act decisively—and it must act in ways that don’t repeat mistakes of the recent past, during the Great Recession. Our state governments serve a dual role as providers of critical services—health care, public safety, education, and mass transit—as well as large employers… New Jersey has successfully flattened the curve of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. But since the state had to virtually shut down in order to control the spread, that success has come with a staggering price tag… Budget gaps like the one in New Jersey cannot be closed by austerity alone.  Multiply New Jersey’s problems to reflect the experiences of 50 state governments and thousands of local governments and the result, without more help from Congress, could be a significantly worse and protracted recession.”