'Back to School' is here: Congress must act now to assist schools
© iStock

In many parts of America, communities are weeks into the new school year, and our schools are sending an S.O.S. to lawmakers and the Trump administration. Leaders must set aside partisan differences, return to the negotiating table and agree on bipartisan aid for America's youth.

Schools desperately need additional emergency relief to pay for necessary safety measures and equipment, technology upgrades, and support to students who are behind academically, and to help meet basic needs, such as school meals, for those impacted by this ongoing emergency. 

Schools are incurring additional costs, whether they open in person or remotely, and have already obligated the federal funding currently available. Schools opening in person need hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment and extra health care staff — all additional expenses outside the usual budget. AASA (the School Superintendents Association) and the Association of School Business Officials International have estimated these types of costs will average $1.8 million for the average mid-size school district this year.

ADVERTISEMENT

They’re also facing less obvious costs that reflect the dozens of new considerations states and school districts must keep in mind as they reopen. Many schools are serving pre-packaged food to children so they can eat in classrooms rather than the cafeteria, a substantially greater expense than usual school food service. Teachers need additional sick leave in case they need to self-isolate, and schools must find substitutes to cover those classes. Some districts are hiring additional bus safety monitors or are running additional bus routes to transport wireless internet access or personal protective equipment. And states are working to provide additional services for special education students who couldn’t receive needed services during the shutdown.

We cannot ignore how the pandemic has exacerbated inequities for high-poverty students, students with disabilities and English language learners. The virus, along with the systemic racial injustice that has rightly come to the forefront of the nation’s attention after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, have particularly impacted Black students. In this moment, we must ensure every student’s individual needs are addressed if we expect them to thrive this year.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which became law in March, was a good first step. But it’s simply not enough to tackle what Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt described during a June Senate hearing as a “perfect storm” of “increased needs and decreased resources” in schools.

My organization estimates that it will take between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion in funding, in addition to the CARES Act dollars, to safely serve all students this school year. This estimate reflects the devastating impacts that COVID-19 has already had on education, and continued effects we anticipate in the coming year. It also anticipates a decline in state and local funding for education stemming from steep reductions in tax revenues because of the nation’s catastrophic economic downturn.

We don’t make this request lightly. Every chief state school officer is prioritizing the health and safety of students, educators and the broader community, and because of the ever-evolving nature of the virus, schools have had to plan to reach students through two systems this school year: remotely and in-person, often at the same time.

ADVERTISEMENT

We know a digital learning gap remains across this country. A not insignificant number of children lack access to computers and internet service needed for the virtual learning already underway in many communities. Children and their families are resorting to sitting in the school parking lot or outside a local library to try and meet their educational needs. That’s unacceptable and unsustainable, which is why we are seeking at least $4 billion to expand broadband internet access.

Finally, we, along with parents and education leaders across the country, strongly oppose any effort to condition receipt of federal emergency funding on whether a school is open for full-time, in-person instruction. Decisions on when to reopen and how to deliver education are, and must remain, state and local ones, based on ongoing consultation with public health officials and continued conversations with parents, students, teachers and school staff.

We urge Congress and the Trump administration to move quickly to reach a bipartisan agreement on an emergency relief package that allows states and local districts to safely and effectively deliver education to every student. The school year has started. Schools urgently need this additional funding to deliver education safely and effectively to students across the country amid the uncertainty of this national emergency.

Carissa Moffat Miller is the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Council of Chief State School Officers(CCSSO) is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, Bureau of Indian Education, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.