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Senate Republicans’ Out-of-Touch Plan Would Pressure Schools to Reopen

Amidst an unprecedented state and local fiscal crisis, Senate Republicans reportedly may offer only one form of new federal fiscal aid to states and localities in the next economic relief bill: funding for schools, but only if they reopen for in-person classes. It’s hard to imagine a plan that’s more out of touch with current realities.

The plan would use schoolchildren in a risky experiment to force open the economy, regardless of the human cost. Instead, we should focus on producing, safely, the best outcomes for students, particularly those facing the highest barriers to learning. The Senate Republican plan fails this common-sense goal because it ignores several basic facts:

  • COVID-19 continues to rage across much of the country, and its path is highly uncertain. We can only reopen schools responsibly if a community’s transmission rate is low (which it isn’t in many places across America) and rigorous measures are in place to limit the virus’ spread at schools. When schools have opened prematurely or without adequate measures to control the virus, cases have surged — just as when states reopened bars, restaurants, and retail stores prematurely.

    Even young children can transmit the virus, and older children seem to transmit it as much as adults do. Plus, schools employ millions of adults: teachers, aides, secretaries, counselors, cleaning staff, and others, all of whom would both face and present new health risks.

  • Huge state and local budget shortfalls are forcing schools to lay off teachers and other employees, making it even harder to open safely or provide adequate remote instruction. Because the pandemic forced states to shut down their economies, state and local revenues have fallen off the table. Already, states and localities have furloughed or laid off 1.5 million workers, including 667,000 bus drivers, cleaning staff, and other school workers, and imposed other steep funding cuts. Without more federal aid, cash-strapped states — which must balance their budgets each year — likely will continue cutting school funding, forcing more layoffs and other cuts in school support.

    Yet the Senate Republican plan reportedly offers no new general fiscal aid to states, only to schools to cover reopening costs. (It would also loosen restrictions on how states can use previous aid.) As a result, state cuts in school funding could actually exceed the aid that Senate Republicans are reportedly offering, since state shortfalls are far larger than the size of the reported package and K-12 funding makes up a large share of state budgets. With fewer staff and dollars, schools would find it even harder to open safely and provide high-quality instruction.

  • Schools that can’t fully reopen will also need more funds to meet children’s educational needs. Districts that opt for virtual classrooms or a hybrid model will also need additional resources, especially if they hope to provide more effective remote instruction than they provided this spring. They may need to provide laptops and Wi-Fi access, develop effective online curricula, train teachers to provide effective remote instruction, hire staff to engage with students one on one or in small groups, recover lost learning time from the spring, and develop mechanisms to check in on students’ overall well-being, for example. At the same time, they’ll need to prepare to return to in-person instruction when it’s safe to do so. But the reported Senate Republican plan would neglect these school needs entirely.
  • Reopening schools prematurely could particularly hurt high-poverty schools with more children of color. Some argue that forcing schools to reopen would help low-income students of color because remote learning particularly hurts them. To be sure, inequities in remote learning are real and important to address, but the Senate Republican plan offers no solution. It would pressure local officials to ignore — indeed, to worsen — virus outbreaks that are disproportionately hitting communities of color, while starving schools that opt for remote instruction of the funds needed to provide that instruction more effectively.

    Further, by ignoring state cuts in school funding, the reported Senate Republican plan would push more responsibility for school funding to the local level. That’s a problem because school districts teaching mostly Black and brown children are much less able to raise revenue locally than wealthier, mostly white communities, largely due to government policies that racially segregated neighborhoods and neglected neighborhoods of color. And high-poverty schools would feel the greatest impact from teacher layoffs and other cuts that the Senate Republican plan helps to generate, since they already tend to receive less funding and face higher costs to educate children with more needs.

Instead, policymakers should provide substantial additional fiscal aid to states through a combination of mechanisms, including: aid to schools that enables districts to choose how best to provide instruction this fall; an increase in the share of Medicaid costs that the federal government covers, which is a particularly effective form of fiscal aid; and flexible, direct grants to states and localities.

The House-passed Heroes Act includes all three of these aid mechanisms. Policymakers could improve on the Heroes Act’s education aid by providing more than its $58 billion, which falls far short of schools’ likely need, and by including a “maintenance of equity” requirement that would require states to maintain their own support for high-poverty schools at pre-crisis levels.