Students and teachers are returning to school this fall at a moment when in many parts of the country, more children than ever before are being hospitalized with COVID-19. State leaders need to ensure schools have the resources and appropriate policies in place to reopen safely and provide high-quality instruction, but not all states are prioritizing safe reopening or planning adequately. Rather than rising to the challenge, some state policymakers are using this moment to undermine public education and add new barriers for school leaders.
For schools to open successfully, state policymakers need to remove barriers to evidence-based decision-making at the district and school levels. Every state should prioritize the following: one, adherence to recommended health measures to keep children safe; two, clarity around allowable and effective uses of federal stimulus funds; and three, open lines of communication with families.
First and foremost, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that students and educators wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Yet, governors in some states including Texas, Arkansas and Florida have banned schools from issuing mask mandates. Banning mask mandates is a poor policy because it does not allow school leaders to partner with communities to make decisions in the best interest of the children.
Second, states need to ensure that district and school leaders understand federal stimulus spending plans. Districts were required to submit their plans by July 31 for spending funds provided through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which passed in March 2021. In contrast to most federal education funding, ARP has few strings attached and districts have relative autonomy for how to spend funds. The stimulus money is much larger than typical federal K-12 support and, in some schools, the new funds will represent an increase in typical funding of more than 20 percent over the next three years.
Since the funds must be spent by October 2024, districts may be reluctant to hire new staff, since those investments represent ongoing expenses and the expiration of federal stimulus funds could create a fiscal cliff. Recent survey data show many schools are using federal stimulus funds to support summer school programs, extend the upcoming school year and offer targeted tutoring. Other districts have identified strategies for strengthening relationships among staff, students and families through outreach programs. Districts will devote a portion of funds to personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing and efforts to conduct contact tracing for those potentially exposed — activities the CDC recommends in its most recent guidance. Regardless of the specifics of school districts’ ARP spending plans, school leaders must have access to plans and supports for understanding how federal resources can be leveraged during the upcoming school year. The tight timeline for creating spending plans may have left some educators in the dark around what resources are available in their district to support students. State education agencies can take steps to inform district and school leaders of federal spending regulations through newsletters, webinars and direct correspondence
Third, states need to ensure districts and schools maintain open lines of communication with families. As part of ARP, districts are required to spend stimulus funds through “meaningful consultation” with families. While the statutory language is vague, this provision in ARP offers schools new opportunities to bring family voices into school budgeting and resource allocation decisions. District and school leaders will benefit from ongoing communication with families about school goals and the progress of individual students, as well as student needs and experiences of families. The federal government will likely provide states and districts with flexibility around these spending plans, especially with the pandemic and families’ needs currently in flux. The Biden administration’s extension of the eviction moratorium, for example, has series of ramifications for what services schools should provide — and when. When families are uprooted from neighborhoods, kids are often forced to adapt to a new school, curriculum and peer group. Studies show student mobility across schools and neighborhoods — most prevalent among low-income students and students of color — presents short-term challenges that schools can address with the right supports.
Along with maintaining open two-way communication about school practices, states should ensure school leaders are informing families about COVID-19 exposures and infections among staff and students so that those involved can take the necessary steps to reduce additional exposures. Unfortunately, several state education agencies have issued guidance to districts stating that families do not need to be informed about COVID-19 cases at their child’s school. This guidance is in direct contrast to CDC guidelines and, again, represents a barrier for local school staff, who may now need to justify their approaches to dealing with the global pandemic, even when those approaches are aligned with CDC recommendations.
Educators are tasked with the immensely challenging but important job of reopening the nation’s schools this fall. State leaders should not undermine public education through restrictive policies and inadequate planning and communication. Instead, state policymakers should prioritize student safety, efficient use of funding and an open line of communication with families and communities.
David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.