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People over politics: Our best chance to return students to learning

People over politics: Our best chance to return students to learning

In the year since schools were shuttered due to COVID-19, debates have raged about the reopening of schools. 

Between the digital divide, increasing racial tensions and amplification of the many inequities students were facing before the coronavirus, the opening of schools became a wedge issue during the 2020 presidential election cycle and has remained so in the early weeks of the Biden administration. Despite all of those considerations, on top of the health of students and educators, very few policy recommendations have come forward with innovations to continue learning regardless of location. 

It is time that federal, state and local governments refocus on students instead of talking points about whether school buildings should be reopened.  

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Continuing learning for students can come in many forms. Many previously-struggling students are actually thriving through virtual learning. While there has been an unfortunate political focus on reopening school buildings, some states have innovative and acted on ideas to continue learning: giving cash payments to parents so students may participate in summer camp and after school programs they could not previously afford; directing funding to 1:1 tutoring programs for students in grades K-8;  incentivizing strategies to bridge the digital divide; and, establishing a corps of community members and professional staff who can support the reduction of class sizes and mental health needs of students and staff are a few ideas states and other entities have come up with to effectively continue learning wherever it may exist.  

A rush to go back to what some are calling “normal,” is both short-sighted and potentially harmful for some students and families. Inability to follow new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines can risk the health of everyone in school buildings, particularly students and educators with preexisting conditions such as asthma and other respiratory challenges. Also, failing to prepare for another emergency in exchange for a focus on “catching students up” through strategies that are not developmentally appropriate and may penalize marginalized students can cause additional trauma

We know schools alone cannot fill the gaps of a system that has perpetuated inequity, racism, classism and trauma in too many cases. Since March of last year, some communities took steps to partner with the broader community to use houses of worship, low-capacity institutions of higher education, recreation centers and other community buildings to support a continuation of learning in a safe and supportive manner consistent with science. Nonetheless, politicians and the media made our children the subjects of political baseball through a false binary of open or closed putting them and educators at risk instead of building on these innovative ideas.  

To be clear, learning must continue for the academic and mental health of our children, and the $126 billion in funding for K-12 schools included in the American Rescue Plan (ARP) will be crucial in realizing that goal. However, when over 50 percent of public school buildings are in disrepair or hazardous. They are in communities that have been historically marginalized and primarily inhabited by Black, Indigenous and other non-Black people of color — in other words, those that have been disproportionately ravaged by COVID-19. We must move with students at the center. The question becomes do some state leaders want the lives of many more people on their hands because removing guardrails to keep the coronavirus at bay seems more politically prudent than ensuring the health of their constituents.   

The decision by the Biden administration to prioritize educators for COVID-19 vaccinations is a great start. Additionally, Dr. Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaWarren stalls confirmation of Biden pick in push for student loan reforms House lawmakers roll out legislation to protect schools against hackers Education Department says anti-trans discrimination prohibited by Title IX MORE’s decision to get into school buildings on his first day as secretary of Education, accompanied by First Lady Dr. Jill BidenJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senators, White House to meet on potential infrastructure deal Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP torpedoes election bill; infrastructure talks hit snag MORE, was a smart move and shows a commitment to children, families and educators. This is a stark change from 2020, when the Trump administration insisted students be quickly returned to school buildings en masse, simply so businesses could continue their profits. A thriving economy is important, but not more than the almost 550,000 people who lost their lives due to inaction and political theater targeted at vulnerable people.   

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Finally, looking ahead, school infrastructure must be a priority for Congress and the White House in the coming months as we plan for recovery as a matter of health, environmental and racial justice. Providing students the buildings they deserve will also serve as a boost to the economy. Likewise, considerations for how a redesign of public education can work for all students, in support of pulling families out of poverty is a process that cannot wait for post-pandemic. 

Providing updates to physical buildings and broadband infrastructure, engaging the community about how to invest ARP dollars and equipping educators with the tools to provide instruction in multiple settings needs to take center stage. While false claims about unspent money are used to derail discussions about equitable distribution, or the amount the ARP allocates to states and local governments for education, our nation’s leaders must rise above political showmanship and establish a clear vision for continuing the opportunity to learn.  

Khalilah M. Harris is acting vice president for K12 education policy at Center for American Progress, and a non-resident senior fellow at Maryland Center on Economic Policy.