State, city education officials press Congress for more COVID-19 funds
Education officials from various parts of the country called on Congress Wednesday to appropriate more funds to help students return to school this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials from Tennessee, Nebraska and Denver told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that school budgets are stretched thin by the combination of funding cuts and much-needed enhancements to allow students to resume learning safely in classrooms.
Nebraska education commissioner Matthew Blomstedt called the situation a “perfect storm” of increased needs and decreased resources.
“I am concerned that the economic impact of the pandemic will result in necessary and sustained cuts in pre-K-12 education funding, perhaps to exceed 20 percent in Nebraska,” Blomstedt said.
Denver Public Schools superintendent Susana Cordova said her district faces a $61 million shortfall, which will only be partially covered by Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, which provided states over $13 billion for school districts nationwide. The measure was signed into law on March 27.
All districts that decide to re-open in the fall will face increased costs for cleaning and personal protective equipment. Tennessee education commissioner Penny Schwinn estimated that purchasing those supplies alone will cost $100 to $150 per student in her state.
She said the total cost to address the virus’ effects on education in Tennessee would be between $100 million to $175 million.
Some districts across the country have proposed a hybrid model for the fall, in which students would alternate between in-person and remote learning.
But that would still leave students with significant “nutritional, social, emotional, and mental health needs,” said John King, who served as Education secretary during the Obama administration.
“Without congressional action, there will be no conceivable way to avoid layoffs and hiring freezes disproportionately impacting educators and staff at high-poverty schools,” said King, who now heads The Education Trust, a national education nonprofit.
He called for an additional $175 billion infusion for K-12 education.
King, Schwinn, and Blomstedt all noted lack of broadband access as a barrier to continued distance learning in either a hybrid or fully remote model this fall. King urged a $4 billion allocation to the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program to provide hotspots for students.
Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) asked the state and city officials to provide specific figures on needed funding, and questioned why existing CARES Act funds could not be used to cover some of the reopening costs.
He said he would consider legislative changes to the CARES Act, giving states more flexibility to allocate funds to education.
Senate GOP leadership indicated this week that the next COVID-19 relief bill isn’t likely to take form until mid-to-late July. Democrats have called for passage before the two-week July 4 recess in the Senate.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said during Wednesday’s hearing he was alarmed that Congress would recess for two weeks before appropriating additional funds to schools.
“We need to get additional funding to states and/or to school districts before the July recess because the planning that’s going to need to be done in order to make sure that schools can reopen safely is going to be done this summer,” he said.