Uncontrolled Infections, Political Manipulation of Science, Lack of Funding, and Complexity of Operating Schools Make It Hard to Start Schoolyear

Reporting on the complexities of attempting to reopen the public schools in New York City this week, the Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit quotes Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools: “Frankly, I don’t know of another institution, public or private, that has so many moving parts with so much public pressure on it from so many angles on it as much as public schools have… I have never seen a situation like this in the 43-plus years I’ve been doing this work, where public school leaders have devoted so much time, effort, creativity and just sheer endurance in trying to solve a set of problems where there’s just no obvious good resolution.”

A team of reporters from POLITICO covers efforts to prepare for school reopening in the nation’s four largest school districts—New York City Public Schools with 1.1 million students, Los Angeles Unified with 600,000 students, Chicago Public Schools with more than 350,000 students, and Miami-Dade County with 347,000 students.  Scale alone is a huge challenge during the pandemic as school districts of this size try to manage staffing, social distancing in classrooms and school buses, ventilation and other safety issues, and a mass of challenges around just securing access for masses of students to online instruction. All this is in addition to scheduling children for complicated hybrid schedules combining in-person and online learning and adapting curriculum and instruction to both modes of education. All these challenges are complicated by a shortage of money and a shortage of clear and consistent guidance from public health officials. The POLITICO reporters remind readers that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have ordered Miami-Dade Schools to reopen in person this week despite that the county has been hit harder by the coronavirus than the rest of the state. The Governor has threatened to withhold state funding unless the school district fully reopens.

The POLITICO reporters spoke with Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA).  Domenech complains that across the United States, school leaders have been left on their own without clear health guidance and without the necessary financial support: “‘They’re on their own,’ he said, because the credibility of CDC guidance is in question amid allegations of White House meddling. ‘It’s ridiculous, with something as serious and as vital as what we’re facing right now, that children have become acceptable carnage.'”

After conducting a massive survey of COVID-19 cases in public schools across the country, the NY Times reported: “(M)ore than a month after the first school districts welcomed students back for in-person instruction, it is nearly impossible to tally a precise figure of how many cases have been identified in schools.”  In a followup this week, the NY TimesMark Mazzetti, Noah Weiland and Sharon LaFraniere document shocking political intervention from the White House pressuring the Centers for Disease Control to discount science and make it appear that opening schools would be safe: “Top White House officials pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer to play down the risk of sending children back to school, a strikingly political intervention in one of the most sensitive public health debates of the pandemic… The documents and interviews show how the White House spent weeks trying to press public health professionals to fall in line with President Trump’s election-year agenda of pushing to reopen schools and the economy as quickly as possible. The president and his team have remained defiant in their demand for schools to get back to normal, even as coronavirus cases have once again ticked up, in some cases linked to school and college reopenings.” Messaging driven by politics instead of science has caused widespread distrust, undermining decisions of school administrators, teachers, and parents alike.

Many school districts, including three of the big four—Los Angeles Unified, Chicago, and Miami-Dade have opened online until infection rates slow and until they can take more precautions. But online instruction and learning has exposed myriad other problems.  In his profile of an impoverished Baltimore middle school student, published jointly this week by ProPublica and The New Yorker, Alec MacGillis describes a sixth-grade boy with minimum supervision at home. This child is isolated by his mother’s drug problem and his grandmother’s inability to help him remember the passwords and manage even the basic technicalities of connecting to ZOOM. Although the school has provided a computer and helped the family with Internet access, the child faces challenges which leave him falling behind and increasingly disconnected from his school and disconnected emotionally.  While MacGillis movingly pleads for in-person school reopening especially for children living in fragile families, he fails to acknowledge the overwhelming complexity of challenges for the very school districts that serve thousands of students like the boy he profiles.

Congress has neglected to provide financial support for desperate school districts and state governments whose recessionary budget collapses have reduced state school funding.  In fact, negotiations for another COVID-19 relief bill began again this week, although nobody is optimistic about the prospect for its passage by the U.S. Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi  began meeting again with Steven Mnuchin with buy in from the President, who would like another set of relief checks sent before the November election. And we know that the bailout money the CARES Act allocated for the airlines has run out.

The bill which has been discussed is not, however, as generous as what the House wanted to provide in the HEROES Act its members passed on May 15 as the first bid in negotiations for a second relief bill.  Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa explains what Pelosi and Mnuchin have been negotiating all week: “A new relief bill released by House Democrats Monday would provide $175 billion to help K-12 schools handle the effects of the coronavirus… Washington is still a long way from reaching a deal on a new virus relief package after months of acrimonious and unsuccessful negotiations. And while Democrats’ proposal—which is an updated version of the HEROES Act that Democrats passed in May—beefs up the education funding from what they pitched in the spring, it also cuts direct relief to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments from over $900 billion in the original HEROES bill to approximately half that amount in the revised version. Such emergency aid could play a big role in offsetting looming—or in some cases already enacted—cuts to education budgets. Overall, the new HEROES Act clocks in at $2.2 trillion, compared to the $3.4 trillion version of HEROES previously passed by the House. The $175 billion in the bill’s education stabilization fund would support schools’ efforts to make up for the lost instructional time, school cleaning, education technology and internet access, mental health services and other costs associated with the pandemic.”

With the election only a month away, however, the problem is politics, as the Washington Post‘s Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Rachael Bade explain: “Senate Republicans… have balked at spending more than $1 trillion. McConnell, who struggled to get his conference united behind a bill containing only around $300 billion in new spending several weeks ago, said it was ‘outlandish’ to think Senate Republicans would agree to anywhere near the $2.2 trillion Democrats want to spend.” Last night the House passed the new relief bill.  All week reporters have said that if the House takes a vote to pass the bill this week, that House vote will itself signify that no deal with the Republican Senate is to be expected before the November election. Passage of the bill by the House alone is considered a political action to help members of the House who are seeking re-election: “House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) has been among those pushing for the chamber to vote on a new bill…. allowing members to return home to campaign for reelection able to show that at least they tried.”  Last night, the Washington Post‘s Erica Werner and Jeff Stein added, however, that Pelosi and Mnuchin are continuing to talk, while they are far from coming to an agreement: “But the fact that Pelosi and Mnuchin are now trading offers in earnest appears to suggest there’s some hope of success.  Even if they do manage to clinch a deal, however, the White House would still have to sell it to Senate Republicans, who have been highly skeptical of any legislation over $1 trillion.”

What about Nancy Pelosi’s strategy to continue negotiating with Steve Mnuchin for a second relief bill? Is all this mere politics? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ executive director Robert Greenstein lauds Pelosi’s persistence. If the federal government were less dysfunctional, we could hope that Congress and the President would find a way to respond to what Greenstein believes are the desperate needs of our country: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s release yesterday of a revised package to address the virus and economic slump is an important and hopeful step. While the new package scales back the House-passed Heroes bill from $3.4 trillion to $2.2 trillion, it does so in sound ways, and the resulting package is both well designed and urgently needed… (T)he new package contains the same core elements, which together form a strong response to the crisis: food, housing and income assistance to tens of millions of struggling households, including improvements in jobless benefits; state and local fiscal relief to avert budget cuts that would exacerbate hardship and further weaken the economy; and a strong public health response… Children are being hit especially hard.  Households with children are likelier to report difficulty affording food and rent, which subjects children to serious hardships… Compounding these concerns, state and local revenues have fallen from pre-pandemic levels even as states and localities face large new pandemic-related costs, leaving them with gaping budget holes. As of August, about 1.1 million public-sector workers had lost their jobs since February, an estimated 688,000 of them in education. A number of states have indicated that without substantial relief soon, they will institute more and deeper cuts.”

Problems re-opening schools this fall reflect widespread confusion about a scientific response to the pandemic, the long unwillingness of Senate Republicans and the President to agree to necessary federal fiscal assistance, and the failure of politicians to grasp the complexities which school principals and teachers know so well.  Additionally, as a society we have abandoned caution in other ways during the pandemic—by trying to save the economy by allowing large gatherings and opening bars as COVID-19 rages on. As Paul Krugman worred in a July, NY Times column: “America drank away its children’s future.”