America’s Public Schools Must Open In the Fall — Safely

By Tressa Pankovits

As the delta variant drives up infection rates in every state in the nation, Americans face an urgent national imperative: Making sure our public schools open and operate safely this fall. We can’t allow our children to suffer another round of large-scale learning losses as they did the previous two school years.

Learning loss is real — and it exacerbates existing inequities in our public education systems. Using the imperfect but best data available, McKinsey & Company translated 2021’s spring in-school test scores of more than 1.6 million elementary school students across 40 states into “months of lost learning.” It found, compared to similar students in previous years, students on average were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Students in majority-Black and predominantly low-income schools were even further behind their higher-income and suburban peers, as were younger students. When considering the huge strides first and second graders usually make in learning to read, and the importance of literacy to future school work, recent reports putting those 2021 students’ average two grade levels or more behind schedule are alarming.

To avoid compounding such losses, schools must safely reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction for students of all ages. At the onset of the pandemic, in their haste to slow the spread of the virus, state and local governments too frequently closed public schools for prolonged periods as a first resort, rather than as a last measure. The second back-to-school under COVID must be different.

Congress and the Biden administration are leading on this enormous task by sending almost $200 billion in aid to the nation’s public schools to help them rise to the challenge. To ensure that children who need the most help are served, the relief is being distributed through the Federal Title I formula. For example, in Chicago, where 82% of 340,000 public school students are low-income, the public schools will receive roughly $8,200 additional dollars per pupil, or about $2.8 billion extra. That is more than eight times the normal amount of the Chicago Public Schools’ annual Title I funding.

With such a massive infusion of relief, districts have a moral imperative to spend those COVID relief dollars promptly and wisely on mitigating safety measures. There simply is no excuse for any district to fail to make its classrooms safe, whether it is improving ventilation before cold weather returns, spacing students out, changing classroom routines, and so on. The federal government has created a “best practices toolkit” for any school leaders that remain unsure of school safety priorities.

And state officials have a duty to support their districts, not only to ensure the money is spent in ways that makes schools healthier, but also to guide common-sense contingency plans for local outbreaks that force temporary school closures.

Unfortunately, a handful of Republican governors are already displaying a shocking lack of good judgment, insisting on foolhardy rules about vaccines and masks that will further erode both parents and teachers’ trust in the safety of schools. For example, on the heels of the CDC’s revised masking guidance last week, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster tweeted a reminder that the state statute he signed in May prohibits school districts from mandating masks. Governor Greg Abbott last Thursday signed an executive order prohibiting Texas municipal governments and state agencies from mandating vaccines, and reinforcing his prior directive prohibiting local officials from requiring face masks. His order defied growing calls from Texas’ city leaders for greater flexibility to combat the renewed spread (209% over 14 days) of C. In response, the Austin Independent School District reversed course, announcing a remote option for students under 12 who cannot be vaccinated. The district can’t guarantee it has the resources to accommodate all takers, but what is guaranteed is more lost in-person learning for a portion of its 41,000 students.

Apparently seeking to outdo his Republican counterparts, the day following Abbott’s order, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that not only bars schools from mandating masks or vaccines, but authorizes his state education commissioner to withhold funding from any schools that violate his asinine rules.

Combined, these three states are home to roughly nine million school-aged children. At a time when the CDC says nearly 70% of U.S.’ counties are experiencing “high or substantial levels of transmission,” many of those kids will no doubt face a higher risk of contracting the virus or a lowered level of parental confidence, and will miss school as a result of the irresponsible posturing by their states’ elected leaders.

Some school leaders are fighting back. Phoenix school officials announced this past week they will require masks, defying state law and Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. But fortunately, most states have authorized local officials to decide, based on regional epidemiological factors, which measures to adopt to protect students and school staff. Seven states — all led by Democratic governors — require indoor masking. Mayors in 14 of the nation’s 100 largest cities, including Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser and Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, last week re-implemented mask policies that demonstrate they are serious about both reducing the delta variant surge and returning children safely to the classroom this fall.

Requiring school staff and eligible students (exempting those with valid medical conditions or religious obligations) to get vaccines or to mask and frequently test before attending schools funded by public dollars just makes good public health sense. The nation’s largest public university system, California State University, is setting a good example, requiring its more than a half a million students and faculty to show proof of vaccination before setting foot on its campuses. No elected official in a far-off statehouse should deny public K-12 schools the same right to protect its community. President Biden was right to chastise those doing so.

School personnel, from district leaders at the top, to administrators, teachers, and staff in the buildings, should not only be vaccinated, they should take the initiative to promote vaccinations and make them available to students and their families. This is how the United States dramatically successfully reduced the incidence of polio and mumps among children in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) is explicit that schools may use federal recovery dollars to pay for the health-related expenditures needed to reopen safely — including vaccinations and testing — as well as for community outreach needed to persuade students and families that it’s safe to return to school. President Biden has also called for school districts to host “pop up” vaccine clinics.” Perhaps allowing vaccinated students to unmask on campus once this current spike subsides is an additional incentive that might help push families in the right direction. In any case, the delta variant likely will not be COVID’s last mutation. Because of the likelihood that COVID booster shots will become an annual health care ritual, like flu shots, schools should get into the habit now of championing and facilitating them.

Amid surging delta infections, some parents understandably may be reluctant to send their children back to in-person learning. And many are likely to have to quarantine their children at home if they are exposed to the virus at school. This already is happening in states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia, where students already are going back to school. Therefore, all public schools need to communicate clearly with parents about safety in their classroom, and to develop contingency plans for keeping children who can’t come to school learning

Those contingency plans — which should act as a backup, not a substitute for classroom instruction — should center on high-quality remote learning. We must do better than the last two years, when the performance of virtual learning was checkered with some schools, like many charter schools, doing well but with many more slow to respond and failing to keep students engaged — especially students who already faced additional challenges. Again using Chicago as an example, course failure rates grew much more for Black and Latino students than for their white and Asian classmates. At this stage of the pandemic, and with billions dollars flowing from Washington, D.C., COVID is no longer an unavoidable emergency that justifies further learning loss. Schools that are not prepared to deliver high quality, personalized remote learning that engages students should be under tremendous scrutiny and held strictly to account for every public COVID relief dollar expended.

That scrutiny should come from state education agencies. They are permitted to keep up to 10% of their state’s education recovery funding. Every state should use some of that to ensure districts are utilizing best practices and spending the money on goods and services that will make a measurable impact.

Federal oversight is also essential. So far, the Education Department has approved 17 state COVID spending plans out of 42 submitted so far. Happily, it appears as if USED is not simply acting as a rubberstamp. Florida hasn’t even submitted its plan yet, but the department already sent Governor DeSantis a warning letter after he announced plans to spend $216 million on teacher and principal bonuses — which, no matter how deserving, would do little to rectify learning loss or increase school safety.

USED is also encouraging the public to monitor state spending by publishing a “funding tracker” that outlines how states are spending their allotment. For example, the database shows that USED Secretary Miguel Cardona’s (who is championing in-person learning with masking nationwide) home state of Connecticut is taking seriously the federal government’s exhortation to use “evidence-based” interventions to address lost classroom time. Connecticut will spend part of its state set aside on developing and distributing to districts model curricula specifically designed to rectify learning loss. More states should follow Connecticut’s lead.

Obviously, the coronavirus, especially the delta variant, remains a clear and present danger, but it can no longer be an excuse for delayed, poorly delivered or virtually nonexistent instruction. One need look no further for a lesson on this than the epic 2005 disaster in New Orleans created by Hurricane Katrina. The massive loss of life and property — and classroom learning — were initially blamed on the weather. Later, the true culprits were identified: Federal and local officials who knowingly allowed the city to languish unprotected with faulty and inadequate levies that could’ve been fixed, albeit at great expense.

In this case, the deadly virus is rightly blamed for much of the suffering caused by the pandemic, but this time we’ve spent a massive amount of money to try to mitigate the damage to our children. The 2021–2022 school year represents a second chance to make America’s public schools more resilient against pandemics and other public emergencies. Nothing is more important than getting every American student back to school with dependable, continuous, high-quality instruction. Common sense, creativity and absolute dedication to that mission is the current test of this crisis.

Tressa Pankovits is Co-Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute.