While President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos push to reopen schools in the fall despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, national experts on Wednesday released a report—welcomed by the country's largest union—emphasizing the necessity of the federal and state governments providing "significant resources" to help teachers and students safely return to classrooms.
"Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education to ever serve in that capacity, and Donald Trump are endangering the lives of students by putting politics ahead of safety."
—Lily Eskelsen García, NEA
The new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report—Reopening K-12 Schools During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Prioritizing Health, Equity, and Communities—encourages school districts to prioritize reopening schools for grades K-5 and students with special needs, and says governments should aid these efforts with ample funding for essential supplies.
The report features various health and safety recommendations to limit the spread of the virus in schools, from requiring all students, teachers, and staff to wear masks and making hand sanitizer or hand-washing stations available to avoiding large gatherings such as assemblies, upgrading buildings, and enforcing guidelines positively rather than by disciplining students.
The cost of implementing such mitigation efforts is "considerable," the report acknowledges, and "while some highly resourced districts with well-maintained buildings may be able to implement most of the strategies, many schools and districts will need additional financial support." According to NASEM:
Federal and state governments should provide significant resources to districts and schools to enable them to implement the suite of measures required to maintain individual and community health and allow schools to remain open. Under-resourced districts with aging facilities in poor condition will need additional financial support to bring facilities to basic health and safety standards. In addition, State Departments of Education should not penalize schools by withholding state-wide school funding formula monies for student absences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some school districts—including the nation's second largest, the Los Angeles Unified School District—have already decided to not resume in-person instruction in the fall due to Covid-19.
However, parents, educators, union leaders, and pediatricians have raised concerns that continuing with only online learning throughout the public health crisis will negatively impact children and prevent adults from returning to work—while also emphasizing the need for Congress and the Trump administration to ensure that inadequate funding does not impede safe education in schools.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest labor union, echoed those points in a statement Wednesday welcoming the new NASEM report.
"As we have consistently stated before, no one wants students to safely return to classrooms more than parents, educators, and administrators," Eskelsen García said. "Whether school buildings are open or not this fall, educators have been working—and will continue to work—to make sure students have the best possible learning experience and have what they need to succeed. So let's not rush students and educators into classrooms when no one can ensure they are safe yet."
NASEM, she explained, "agrees with us that the safety of students and educators are critical pieces of the decisions school districts must make, calling for masks, hand sanitizer, and healthy ventilation systems. The report also noted that in-person learning has many benefits for students, and called upon 'representatives of school staff, families, local health officials, and other community interests to inform decisions related to reopening schools.'"
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"The bottom line is that without a comprehensive plan that includes federal resources to provide for the safety of our students and educators with funding for personal protective equipment, socially distanced instruction, and addressing racial inequity, we could be putting students, their families, and educators in danger," Eskelsen García warned, before taking aim at Trump and DeVos, who have downplayed the risks of reopening schools amid a pandemic and even threatened to cut off funding for those that don't resume in-person instruction.
The union leader charged that "Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education to ever serve in that capacity, and Donald Trump are endangering the lives of students by putting politics ahead of safety. They are failing America's public schools, students, parents, and educators by rushing to reopen our public schools."
As John Nichols wrote for The Nation Tuesday:
The president is attacking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that are essential to a safe and functional reopening of the schools; he's threatening to withhold resources that are desperately needed to maintain public education—be it in-person or virtual—and he's turning a debate that should be grounded in science into a political food fight. "Their goal isn't safety, it's politics," warned American Federation of Teachers [AFT] president Randi Weingarten, who urges students, parents, and teachers to listen carefully to what Trump and his education secretary are saying about reopening. "Are they putting the safety of kids or educators first? No," she argues. "Do they have a plan to actually reopen schools or resources for it? No."
In a series of tweets Sunday, Weingarten added:
Here's the truth: They don't want to spend the money to keep your kids or teachers safe. They're fine cutting taxes for the rich and giving bailouts to corporations. But when it comes to protecting your kids and getting them back to school responsibly it is not their priority.
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) July 12, 2020
Both AFT and NEA have called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to rally GOP members of the chamber to support the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed by the Democrat-majority House earlier this year, which includes $915 billion for state and local governments that can be used to pay workers such as educators as well as $90 billion in additional education funding to help save jobs.
"Right now, due to the economic crisis brought forth by this pandemic, we have already lost nearly one million education jobs, and another two million more are at risk. Funding has fallen off a cliff," Eskelsen García said Wednesday. "We want to open schools, but we cannot bring students back to the classroom if we don't get the support from the Senate to do it safely and to make sure they have what they need to succeed."
NEA estimated in June that without government intervention, the nation could lose 1.89 million education jobs in the next three years. That same month, an AFT analysis found that on top of the funding needed to address the losses of hundreds of thousands of local education jobs, safely reopening the nation's K-12 public schools this fall requires an estimated $116.5 billion federal investment.