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Senate Panel Asks: When Can K-12 Schools Safely Reopen?

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate's education committee heard testimony on reopening schools. (Top row from left: Sen. Lamar Alexander, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova, Sen. Bob Casey. Middle: former education secretary John B. King Jr., Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Bottom: Penny Schwinn, Matthew Blomstedt, Sen. Tammy Baldwin.)
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Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Safely reopening the nation's public schools will be an expensive and Herculean task without additional help from the federal government. And, until schools do reopen, the nation's most vulnerable children will continue to be hardest hit — losing consistent access to meals, valuable learning time, and vital social-emotional support. Those were just some of the takeaways Wednesday from a hearing of the U.S. Senate's education committee.

A handful of school leaders and a former U.S. secretary of education told senators that many districts will struggle to put in place recommendations for protecting students from COVID-19. Those include providing masks, gloves and sanitizer, hiring cleaning staff and nurses, conducting testing and contact tracing, as well as planning for socially distant classrooms. One big challenge is that these efforts are happening as states slash education budgets.

"I am concerned that the economic impact of the pandemic will result in necessary and sustained cuts in PK-12 education funding, perhaps to exceed 20% in Nebraska," said Matthew Blomstedt, that state's Commissioner of Education.

The high cost to reopen schools was thrown into sharp relief by a recent analysis from the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International. According to the report, the average district would incur nearly $1.8 million in additional expenses, with the bulk of the spending going toward hiring additional custodial staff, nurses and aides to take students' temperatures before they board school buses.

In many places, budget cuts — and this pandemic — are hitting schools that serve many low-income families the hardest. These districts often depend more on state dollars than their wealthier neighbors, who may rely more heavily on local property tax revenue, and have struggled to provide students with tools necessary to learn remotely, including digital devices and access to Wi-fi.

In fact, much of the hearing focused not on the specific safety challenges of reopening school but on the continued logistical and financial challenges of educating students remotely — especially already vulnerable students.

Districts need "access to devices, access to broadband, access to professional development for educators," said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee's education commissioner. "Our own governor often references not having internet on his farm. And that's a reality that's all too true for many of our students and their teachers."

This may reveal school leaders' embrace of a hard truth that many parents and policymakers don't want to hear: Many children won't be returning to school full-time in the fall.

Susana Cordova, the superintendent of Denver's public schools, said Denver students will likely see a mix of remote and in-person learning. While all students will do at least 40% of their learning in-person, Cordova said, vulnerable students will receive additional in-person instruction.

Whether schools are able to open physically in the fall, the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa, said "we have to address the ways this virus has further exacerbated inequities that have long existed within our education system ... we have to do better. Because if we don't, the achievement gap—that we strive to close—will undoubtedly widen. We can't let that happen."

And John B. King, Jr., a former education secretary under President Barack Obama, made clear that the ongoing protests over police violence should compel school leaders and policymakers to think even harder about what more they can do to support their students of color.

"The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have once again sent the message to black students that their lives are devalued," King said. "As schools reopen, our nation's students of color and their families also find themselves enduring a pandemic that disproportionately impacts their health and safety, mired in an economic crisis that disproportionately affects their financial well-being, and living in a country that too often still struggles to recognize their humanity."

The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, himself a former U.S. Secretary of Education, made clear he believed Congress had already done a great deal, through the CARES Act, to help schools, but he did leave open the possibility of doing more.

Alexander closed the hearing by asking the panelists for details — specifically, a price tag — "about exactly what it would take, in terms of financial support, to open our schools safely."

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.