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3 Takeaways for Schools From a Congressional Hearing on COVID-19

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As schools scramble to finalize plans to start the new school year with coronavirus precautions, their circumstances were a frequent topic at a congressional hearing Friday on the country's response to the pandemic.

Members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee's Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis pressed the nation's top public health officials on whether the federal response to the illness had been adequate to contain it, and how continued spread would affect all sectors of public life, including education.

The witnesses—Anthony Fauci, the nation's chief epidemiologist; Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health and human services— as President Donald Trump continued to push for schools to reopen their buildings and after GOP senators proposed conditioning a majority of new federal relief aid on plans to do so. The push to reopen comes even as rates of the virus spike in some states, causing school administrators to revert to plans for remote learning.

Here's what school leaders and educators need to know about the hearing.

Do schools need more resources to reopen?

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican and the ranking member of the committee, asked Redfield to elaborate on recent CDC guidance that stresses the importance of reopening school buildings

Redfield said it's not an issue of "public health vs. the economy." There are public health considerations on both sides, he said, stressing the ways schools address concerns about student's mental health, reporting child abuse, and preventing suicide.

Important context: Redfield recently told reporters that schools in "hotspots," local areas where at least 5 percent of COVID-19 tests come back positive, may have to delay or modify reopening plans. Dozens of states have testing positivity rates above that threshold, but Redfield has stressed looking at more "granular" local data in making decisions.

Education groups, teachers' unions, and advocacy organizations have pressured Congress for additional relief funding targeted at schools, saying state and local budget cuts may force them to cut programs even as they take on additional expenses related to virus prevention.

Scalise questioned if additional money was really necessary. He cited a recent federal watchdog report that found a very small portion of the education money allotted through the first relief bill, the CARES Act, had been spent.

"Any local school system that wants to claim they don't have the ability to do that, go straight to your governor. ...If  you run out, give us a call, but right now there is money in your state's account to buy masks, sanitizers, to safely reopen," he said.

We explored why CARES Act funds are moving through the system relatively slowly in a few weeks ago. What we heard:

  • Districts have until September 2021 to spend that money, and many are still submitting plans of how they will do so. Districts may also be spending their own funds now with the intent to seek reimbursement from CARES dollars later.
  • Districts don't want to draw down all of their CARES money until they are certain about whether they will receive additional federal aid.
  • Districts have waited to see if their states will direct them to follow a controversial rule by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that directs a portion of that aid to private school students.

In response to Scalise, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said schools need "more than supplies" to keep students safe, noting that some lack the physical space to follow CDC guidelines on social distancing.

Are testing lags too long?

A key questions for school administrators contemplating reopening: Do children contract and spread the virus as quickly as adults? 

In response to questions from Waters, Fauci stressed that children are "not immune" from the virus, but that they have far fewer "deleterious effects" and are far less likely to require hospitalization when they contract it. Earlier this week, Fauci told an audience at the American Federation of Teachers virtual convention that there is little data about how children spread the virus to adults, and that schools will be "part of the experiment" as researchers gather more data on how they affect virus transmission.

Democrats on the committee questioned whether current testing strategies are adequate to detect cases of the virus in the first place, a concern that has repeatedly surfaced in school reopening decisions. They cited wait times from a few days to as long as 16 days, longer than the 14-day incubation period of the virus. Public health officials have recommended that people with suspected exposure to the virus should self isolate until they receive test results, but long wait times make that more difficult, members stressed.

"We cannot expect to reopen the economy safely if the virus is spreading unchecked," Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said.

In addition to "surge" testing in heavily affected states like Arizona, federal officials are working to prioritize diagnostic testing for individuals, sending those tests to private labs that have been challenged by heavy demand, Giroir said. For surveillance testing—in which broad populations, including students, are tested en masse—officials have sought to expand use of labs that don't require authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, like university research labs and veterinary labs, he said. That prioritization should help speed up wait times, Giroir said.

Is resistance to reopening schools political?

Republicans on the committee questioned whether schools had justification for keeping their buildings closed.

Scalise held up a stack of guidance documents from the CDC about issues like masks and social distancing in schools, saying they provided adequate support for local decision-makers.

"You can do it and, in fact, you need to do it. To say you cannot do it is a cop out," Scalise said. "This is America. We put a man on the moon."

But some school administrators have said those guidelines lack specifics necessary to drive key decisions. And others have said they need clearer guideines about when to close classrooms and how to respond when students or teachers test positive.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said some teachers' unions have resisted reopening schools while encouraging members to participate in protests, like those in Portland, Ore., which he blamed for the spread of COVID-19.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said CDC guidance encouraging school reopenings came after pressure from the White House. He said schools would not face such difficult questions about welcoming students back if President Donald Trump had adopted a more-effective federal strategy in the initial weeks of the crisis.

"It is clear that the administration's approach of deferring to the states, sidelining the experts and rushing to reopen has prolonged this crisis and led to thousands of preventable deaths," he said.

Related: A researcher recently used Education Week's data on school district closures to determine if there was a correlation between a region's political leanings and its decision to reopen buildings. Read more here.

Photo: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks as Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, right, listens during a House Select Subcommittee hearing on the Coronavirus Friday --Erin Scott/Pool via AP


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