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The president, teachers, parents and students all want schools to reopen this fall. Remote learning, which began at many schools in March, exacerbates inequities and can be detrimental to student health as they miss out on social interactions with their peers and adults, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has advised.
Returning to schools is a priority for many Americans, as it should be. But orders from President Donald Trump and threats to withhold funding from schools that don’t follow his demands won’t magically make schools safe for the return of students and staff.
For one, schools need a lot more resources to safely reopen to students, teachers and staff, not less money. Maine’s commissioner of education, Pender Makin, put the price tag at $328 million in new expenses for reopening the state’s schools for the upcoming academic year. The federal government should be a significant source of that money (and it may be through CARES Act funding).
Second, at a time when coronavirus cases continue to climb in the U.S., schools need guidance and support for educating students in ways that don’t endanger their health or that of the teachers, bus drivers, aides, janitors and other school personnel, or their parents. Specific federal guidance has been confused, at best, and often nonexistent from the president himself.
Instead, the White House has simply launched a full-court press to pressure schools to reopen.
“We want to get our schools open – we want to get them open quickly,” Trump said Tuesday. As for coronavirus, he said, the fall is going to be “a much better climate than it is right now.”
This is a hope, not a plan. And it certainly isn’t something schools can count on.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos blamed some schools for being too risk averse and criticized schools that she said “gave up and didn’t try.” And, on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence joined the chorus calling on schools to open and the president threatened to cut off federal funds from schools that did not open.
None of them talked of the safety measures that need to be met for students to safely return to K-12 schools across America, while the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise. Nor did they talk about the significant new expenditures that schools will face.
Further, their portrayal of school officials as resistant to opening schools in a few weeks is simply wrong. Instead, education officials are focused on the countless scenarios, contingencies and details that must be addressed before schools can safely open. They are doing so in the absence of a plan from the president and other federal officials to control and reduce the spread of coronavirus, which should have come first.
“We know that there is no place healthier and safer for students than our school settings,” Makin told members of the Appropriations Committee last week.
However, she stressed that making this possible would require a lot more staff and resources. She told the committee that she estimated the cost for a return to full in-person instruction would be $328 million in new expenses because of the need for additional personnel, busses, protective equipment and much more.
The Department of Education will continue to work with school districts to determine when to resume in-person instruction. A task force developed a detailed draft framework to guide school reopenings in Maine. The department is continuing to seek input on the framework.
Grace Leavitt, a high school Spanish teacher and the president of the Maine Education Association, is a member of the task force.
Asked about reopening schools in Maine, she offered a long list of items that needed attention, and money. Screenings for students and staff to ensure that coronavirus is not spread through a school building. Cleaning supplies and additional janitorial staff, as well as personal protective equipment for staff and, likely, students. More buses and bus drivers to safety transport students, who will need to be separated from one another, to school. Additional counselors and nurses to meet the health needs of students who have been affected by being separated from friends and others for months. Building improvements, including better ventilation systems. More staff to work with students who must be separated into smaller groups that has been the norm. Equipment and internet access for students who may again need to participate in remote learning.
Leavitt was sure she’d left items off the list she composed before talking with the BDN. Educators have been working since mid-March, when Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency and Maine schools moved to remote learning, on plans for the resumption of school, she said.
There is broad agreement that schools should reopen. The discussion and planning must be rooted in ensuring the safety of everyone involved, while also making sure that the costs of needed changes and adaptations are covered.