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US Teachers and Pediatricians Demand Major Federal Investment In Schools to Allow for Safe Reopening

"It's incredible to me that the federal government would see the necessity of bailing out airlines and banks and not see the need to do something similar for the public schools in this country," said one San Diego teacher.

Julia Conley

Children in an elementary school class wear masks and sit as desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Pediatricians are joining teachers across the country in demanding significant federal funding to ensure that schools can reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic as Republican lawmakers express reluctance to invest in the health of the nation's children and educators.

The American Academy of Pediatrics joined the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, AASA, and the School Superintendents Association on Friday in a call for Congress to allocate the funding necessary to provide all public schools with personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilation systems, cleaning equipment, and social distancing measures which would demand smaller class sizes.

"When a hurricane hits, every American has a right to expect FEMA to come in and help. This is a similar emergency."
—Kim Anderson, National Education Association

"Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics," wrote the groups. "We call on Congress and the administration to provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools. Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person fulltime would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers."

The statement was released days after national teachers' unions condemned President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for pressuring schools to reopen without first releasing a comprehensive safety plan. 

On Sunday, CNN's Dana Bash appeared incredulous during an interview with DeVos, who refused to say whether the federal government would release guidance regarding how severe a Covid-19 outbreak in a school must be before the facility shuts down again and moves to a remote learning plan. 

"Schools should do what's right on the ground at that time for their students and for their situation," the education secretary told Bash. "There is no one uniform approach that we should take nationwide."

CDC guidelines obtained by the New York Times on Friday reveal the CDC considers reopening schools while case numbers are surging in a number of states "highest risk" for worsening the pandemic. 

The CDC has publicly released several recommendations for avoiding outbreaks in schools should they reopen, including keeping students' desks at least six feet apart and allowing for social distancing on school buses, mask-wearing, investing in ventilation systems, and regularly disinfecting surfaces throughout schools.

After Trump called the recommendations "very tough" and "expensive" last week, the CDC said it was preparing to release new guidance.

As Congress negotiates the next coronavirus aid package this month, Democrats are pushing to include nearly $1 trillion in funding for school budgets. After the House passed the HEROES Act in May, including $90 billion for public school districts, Senate Republicans dismissed the package as a "liberal wish list."

Regarding the upcoming package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week showed little enthusiasm for helping schools procure cleaning equipment, PPE, and other safety necessities, saying such needs "will have a cost issue." Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) indicated that protecting schools from liability should teachers or students become ill once schools reopen would be a priority for the GOP.  

"It's incredible to me that the federal government would see the necessity of bailing out airlines and banks and not see the need to do something similar for the public schools in this country," Adam Goldstein, a fifth-grade teacher in San Diego, told the New York Times last week. 

"Are schools being provided proper funding to accomplish this task? No. There's your answer on reopening," tweeted Jason Calizer, another educator in Southern California.

The School Superintendents Association recommends that public school districts receive an average of $1.8 billion each in order to prepare to reopen safely in the fall. 

"Not only is there a [need] for retrofitting, for ventilation systems, but also for buying the damned masks, for the cleaning equipment, for the nurses that we're going to need," American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said Sunday in a radio interview. "That's why we've been pushing really get the [federal] money that states need."

Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, compared the pandemic to an environmental disaster.

"When a hurricane hits, every American has a right to expect FEMA to come in and help," Anderson told The Hill. "This is a similar emergency."

Local teachers' unions across the country are speaking out about the federal government's push to reopen. United Teachers Los Angeles, representing 35,000 educators in the nation's second-largest school district, publicly stated this week that schools should not reopen as planned on August 18. A poll of members also found 83% of the city's teachers want in-person learning to remain suspended. 

The union released a policy paper last week demanding the state and federal government use the pandemic as an opportunity to vastly improve support for the district's teachers and students by imposing a moratorium on charter schools, reallocating policing funds to schools, and expanding Medicare coverage to all Americans.

"No matter the scenario in August, it's clear that it will not be a 'normal' school year. But when 'normal' means deep race and class fissures that result in increased infection and death rates in Black, Brown, and high-poverty communities; when 'normal' means increasing police budgets even as schools, libraries, and public health face catastrophic cuts; when 'normal' means corporations receiving trillions in bailout funds as federal commitments to support special education and high-poverty students remain unfulfilled; when 'normal' means working families lining up for miles for food banks while U.S. billionaires increased their wealth by over $584 billion—it is clear that going back to normal is not an option," the union wrote. "This crisis presents an opportunity to create a new normal that supports all students."

Meanwhile, in one of the states hardest-hit by Covid-19 infections, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump loyalist who pushed to reopen the economy in early May, claimed on Thursday that the state's reopening of businesses proves schools can also reopen.

"I'm confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools," DeSantis said.

But with Florida's hospitals overwhelmed and the state now reporting a nearly 20% positive Covid-19 testing rate—well above the 5% the CDC recommends as a prerequisite for reopening—the state appears to be demonstrating that Walmart and Home Depot were not in fact able to open there safely. The state also reported a record 15,300 new infections on Sunday, the most reported by a state in a single day since the pandemic began. 

"I don't know what happened to his brain, because now he's comparing Walmart to schools," Weingarten said Sunday. "What I'm concerned about [are] the pronouncements from DeSantis that seem to deny that the virus exists. Seem to deny that anybody would get hurt... Teachers now are getting scared."

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