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Education Leaders Warn Senators of 'Perfect Storm' of Challenges in Reopening Schools

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create uncertainty in the economy and public health, starting a new school year will be a high-stakes challenge for educators who must help get students back on track after extended school closures.

That was the message a panel of education administrators and an advocate for educational equity shared with the Senate education committee Wednesday as they testified in a hearing focused on reopening schools shuttered to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Overcoming those hurdles will often involve adopting a hybrid approach that combines remote and in-person learning, costly uncharted territory for most schools, the witnesses told lawmakers. 

The challenges include logistical issues associated with keeping students healthy; equity in areas like internet access; providing adequate compensatory services for special education students; and accomodating employees and students at elevated risk for severe illness from the virus.

"I am concerned that the economic impact of the pandemic will result in necessary and sustained cuts in my state's K-12 education funding to exceed 20 percent, while at the same time our costs of providing multiple platforms for learning will increase the need for teaching staff time," Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt said. "This is a perfect storm as we face increased needs and decreased resources."

Calls for More Federal Aid

The hearing came as education groups and Democrats push for additional federal relief for states and local governments that they say is necessary to help them avoid steep cuts to school spending.

Committee Democrats like ranking member Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut stressed the need for help schools face unprecendented needs, like helping ensure special eduction students aren't left behind after interrupted learning.

"This is my great worry," said Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat. "In a moment when we should be investing, we are going to be seeing cuts because Congress apparently feels no urgency ... as schools are trying to get ready for what is arguably the most important beginning of a school year that will happen in a lifetime."

While Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said her state had committed to fulfilling its K-12 funding formula, others, including Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova, warned that revenue shortfalls may force states to make cuts that could challenge their ability to maintain programs and staff.

The Association of School Business Officials and AASA, the School Superintendents' Association, estimated this week that the average school district will rack up an additional $1.8 million in expenses just to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for reopening schools. That includes items like providing masks and hand sanitizer and hiring additional employees for student health screenings. It does not include costs associated with remote learning or other challenges districts may face.

In a letter last week, a group of more than 100 House Democratic lawmakers said Congress should set aside a $305 billion stabilization fund for K-12 education in the next coronavirus relief package, based on estimates from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The latest House coronavirus aid bill—the HEROES Act, provides far less than that, and it has been rejected by Republicans in the Senate.

Education advocacy groups have called for at least $250 billion for K-12 and higher education in the next stimulus bill.

Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., asked if money allotted through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act would be sufficient to cover additional costs. The CARES Act provided $13.5 billion for school districts and another $3 billion for governors to direct to K-12 and higher education needs at their discretion.

But some analyses have said that funding may not be enough to offset anticipated state funding cuts.

John B. King Jr., the CEO of the Education Trust and a former secretary of education in the Obama administration, said future relief bills should include requirements to ensure new federal money adds to previous state revenue levels, rather than backfilling areas that are cut.

Controversy Over Private School Students

Murray and several other Democrats said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos should testify before the committee about her nonbinding equitable services guidance for CARES Act relief money, which instructed public school districts to direct a portion of the federal aid to private school students. 

"What [schools] don't need is for Secretary DeVos to use this crisis to push her privatization agenda and compound the difficulties that they are experiencing," Murray said.

That directive has spurred controversy and resistance from some states. Blomstedt asked the committee for further clarification about how it would be applied. Alexander recently said that he differs from DeVos' interpretation of equitable services under CARES.

DeVos said in late May she will create a new federal rule that could require districts to follow what's now nonbinding guidance. She has not yet released that rule.

Equity in Technology

All of the witnesses flagged uneven access to the internet, personal devices, and computers as a concern.

That's because many schools may have to adopt rolling closures if the virus surges in their areas, they said. And many will keep portions of their students home several days a week, providing instruction remotely to avoid crowding in classrooms.

But in some families, multiple students are sharing one device to complete lessons, King said. Rural families often lack access to broadband internet, and low-income families may not be able to afford it.

"In my state and in many rural states, internet is spotty at best," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

And while education advocacy groups have called for more funding for E-Rate—the federal program that helps cover school technology costs—schools need additional flexibility to use that money to cover technology in students' homes, she said.

In addition to technology, states are working to help schools prepare teachers for continued online instruction through professional development and guidance. Tennessee will release 20 toolkits next week to help districts navigate those and other reopening challenges, Schwinn said.

Adding to those challenges? Many staff members and students may have health vulnerabilities that make attending school in-person too risky.

The CDC guidance calls for schools to accomodate individuals at high-risk through telework and remote learning. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should release guidance for schools on meeting those workers' needs before the start of the new school year.

Testing, and More Testing

Alexander emphasized that frequent virus testing and contract tracing will be necessary to reopen schools safely and to contain exposure to COVID-19 so that school closures can be more limited in the new year.

In Tennessee, which has one of the highest per-capita testing rates in the country, education officials are working with officials coordinating the state's testing efforts to involve schools, Alexander noted.

"The question for governors, school districts, teachers and parents is not whether schools should reopen—but how," he said. "Any teacher can explain the risk of emotional, intellectua,l and social damage if a child misses a school year. Schools need to assess how this year's disruption has affected our children and get student learning back on track."


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