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Senators Press DeVos for Specifics on How Schools Should Handle Coronavirus

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As communities around the country record new cases of coronavirus, schools are grappling with tough questions about how to respond, senators told U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Thursday.

"Schools are going to be affected," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said, at a hearing of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on health and education. "They are all going to be asking the same questions, and you are in a position to help them understand and get the answers to that."

The first confirmed case of coronavirus in Merkley's state was a school employee who tested "presumptive positive" for it late last week. That left schools scrambling with questions about whether and how long to close, how to disinfect buildings, and even what protective garments employees should wear while they cleaned, Merkley said.

"They were desperate for guidance on what is proper," he said. 

Merkley and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., raised the issue at a hearing that met to question DeVos on the department's fiscal 2021 budget request. That request proposes cutting federal education spending by $5.6 billion from the department's current budget of $71.2 billion and rolling most federal K-12 programs—29 in total—into a formula-driven block grant. 


See Our In-Depth Coverage: Coronavirus and Schools


The U.S. Department of Education has launched a coronavirus task force, DeVos said, and officials regularly communicate across federal agencies about the latest information on how to respond to the outbreak. The department also has a designated email address for state and local education officials with coronavirus questions, and a website with resources on the illness, she said. Regarding closures, that website links to interim guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That guidance advises schools to communicate with local health officials in the event of identified cases of coronavirus in their communities about whether and how long to close. In communities without identified cases, it advises schools to update emergency response plans and to encourage sick students and staff to stay home.

But as case numbers rise, more schools will have those questions, Merkley said. He asked DeVos to advocate for more specific guidance from the CDC.

Public health officials have said it's necessary to update and adjust public instructions as they learn more about the virus, which originated in China. Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director at the CDC, told lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday that while federal agencies provide "guidance" on this issue, ultimately the decisions about things like school closures are made at the local level.

"You have this balance between, the earlier you act the more impact it can have in slowing the spread, and the enormous disruption we see with school closures," she said.

DeVos said the Education Department has taken additional actions to respond to the virus this week, and many of those actions address concerns previously outlined by senators in a March 2 letter to the agency. Officials are working to update 2009 guidance on the needs of students with disabilities during an outbreak of H1N1, known as swine flu, she said. That guidance called for ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to educational opportunities provided in the event of a school closure, like distance learning opportunities.

On Wednesday, the Education Department's office for civil rights advised schools to pay "careful attention" to bullying and other unfair treatment of students who are perceived to be Chinese-American or otherwise of Asian descent as concerns about coronavirus spread.

Murray said the administration's coronavirus response "has not inspired confidence." She noted that one district in her home state has opted to close schools for up to two weeks after absenteeism rates rose to 20 percent as families decided to self-quarantine. Washington has more identified cases of the illness than any other state. In addition to closures, schools need guidance on issues like how to provide meals to low-income students who rely on them, Murray said.

"It is really a frightening time for students and families in my state and around the country," she said.

DeVos Defends Budget Proposal

Senators also pressed DeVos on the administration's fiscal 2021 budget request. 

Some Republican lawmakers said the block grant plan would provide needed flexibility for states and districts that may have different priorities and needs than existing federal programs. 

"I appreciate the idea," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., listing a handful of small Oklahoma towns that may have differing needs. "The idea is worthy of debate."

But others said the idea of combining programs into a block grant obscured a substantial overall funding cut, leaving states and districts to make difficult decisions about how to do more with less.

"It appears President Trump has no concern about increasing the federal deficit when it involves giveaways to the wealthy in the tax bill, but he has no trouble taking money away from education, all in the name of fiscal responsibility," Murray said.

Senators singled out specific programs and asked whether their purposes would be maintained without designated funding streams. For example, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., asked DeVos why McKinney-Vento funding for homeless students was included in the block grants when the number of homeless students is at an all-time high. And Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., asked why the request sought to dissolve dedicated funding for Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, which can fund school safety and student supports, into the the proposed block grant; Baldwin noted that schools say children's mental health and well-being are a high priority.

The block grants would give schools the flexibility to spend money how they see fit, DeVos said, and they could do so with fewer administrative hurdles and requirements attached to specific programs. She said education programs as they are currently constituted have failed to move the needle on student achievement.

"The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience," DeVos said.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the idea of block grants is worth discussion, but that it would require changes to federal education law to so significantly change the structure of existing programs. 

"It's a debate that I see a lot of merit in, but we have to appropriate the money based on current law," Blunt said.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos arrives to testify during the Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Education Thursday. - Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images


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