Congress must invest in education to battle the coronavirus downturn

Congress must invest in education to battle the coronavirus downturn
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The coronavirus crisis has upended education and training at every level across the country. Elementary and secondary education is no exception. With another school year on the horizon and recent disruption that has set back learning and widened disparities, lawmakers must include sufficient funding for education in the next relief package.

Congress is scrambling to strike a deal on this. The Senate bill would send $70 billion aimed at elementary and secondary schools with most of that funding designated to prepare for in person instruction. However, as it is proposed, those resources are predicated on schools meeting reopening requirements established by states and localities. The devastation of the pandemic has wreaked havoc on budgets. Though cuts to education and human capital investments provide relief over the short term, they drain innovation and contribute to the inequality divide.

On top of the substantial loss of state and local revenues, school districts face new added costs of fighting the coronavirus while delivering quality education that could involve in person and online instruction. New safety expenses include adhering to disinfecting protocols, hiring staff to utilize protection protocols, and providing teachers and students with personal protective equipment as well as transportation.

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Inconsistent and sometimes contradictory guidelines on safely reopening schools from the Education Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Academies of Sciences further fuels confusion among state and local leaders.

The education response to the coronavirus will take greater support than the recovery from the Great Recession thanks to safety protocols, social distancing, and remote learning. Yet the Cares Act provided significantly fewer resources than schools received during the previous crisis. Studies have found that the Great Recession reduced student achievement since spending declined for each pupil. The spending has not rebounded, and the coronavirus crisis will further worsen matters.

A sense of urgency and fear thrums in homes and the halls of power alike. Kids have been at home from school since the spring. Time out of school, including summer breaks and absenteeism, results in diminished student achievement, especially in low income populations. School interruptions and closures during the pandemic have significantly impeded education attainment. Students are projected to return to school with a fraction of the typical learning from the prior year in math and reading. Reopening schools is also key to helping parents return to work and rebuilding the economy ahead of a momentous election this year.

States and districts are struggling to create reopening plans for the fall. Initial efforts have been thwarted by the recent rise in coronavirus cases. Some large districts have unveiled plans to start the school year remotely. The federal government wants schools to reopen, but over 80 percent of the state plans include parent choice, which means that remote learning capabilities are necessary. As the superintendents and the administrators continue their efforts, more investment is critical.

A federal backstop would not offset the new costs on states and localities, so a block grant for added expenses of fighting the coronavirus should be targeted to build on the funding in the Cares Act. Among other needs, this block grant must be sufficient enough for states and localities to cover the higher costs of delivering quality education during the pandemic, as well as dealing with the hardware and connectivity solutions that would best suit the many challenges in their communities.

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The uncertain landscape could make remote learning an enduring need. This is an opportunity to better incorporate modern technology learning practices into regular instruction both now and for the future. The federal government should also connect states and districts which pursue similar strategies to identify the most effective practices and negotiate together for the lowest prices and fastest procurement.

While education is a local issue, handling the effects of the coronavirus is a national problem that takes national support. This crisis has forced new levels of financing across the private and public sectors to buffer its dire effects. But federal investments in education are important to reduce the serious and destructive effects as well. Indeed, the health and prosperity of our children and our country depend on it.

Cindy Cisneros is vice president of education programs at the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board. She was previously a special assistant for elementary education at the Department of Education.