With Covid-19 cases on the rise and state budgets in crisis, federal lawmakers seem poised to pass another round of stimulus. It appears that K–12 education will receive a decent portion of the emergency aid, likely exceeding the $13.5 billion-plus provided to U.S. schools in the last package. A recent Washington Post article reports that federal lawmakers are mulling the possibility of tying K–12 funding to school reopenings—perhaps unsurprising given the president’s recent comments urging schools to reopen for in-person learning this fall.
No one can be sure whether the feds will come through with additional funds (and if so when), or whether they’d condition funding on reopening. But even if Congress doesn’t require it, state policymakers should—provided it can be done within federal rules—work to ensure that any forthcoming federal relief be used to help schools safely reopen. Here are three reasons why.
1. It’ll cost more to safely operate brick-and-mortar schools. The stringent health and safety measures that schools will need to implement are going to impose new costs. A National Science Academies report, for example, estimates $1.8 million in costs to a typical 3,200 student district. Among the expenses are hand sanitizer, masks and protective equipment, and additional bus routes. Schools may also need to purchase thermometers or scanners for temperature checks. It’s true that remote learning also poses some unique costs, most notably related to technology, but those expenses are much lower than the costs of safely operating facilities during a health crisis.
2. Reopening schools is critical to meeting student needs. A multitude of voices, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have noted the serious harms to students, especially those with significant needs, when schools are shut. But absent prodding from state officials or parents, there’s little reason for schools to reopen this year. Some districts will receive the same funding regardless of their decision, and many face pressure from teachers unions to keep schools closed. Targeting supplemental aid to reopening could ensure that schools meet health guidelines, helping to reassure parents and teachers that it’s safe to go back.
3. Teachers and staff deserve additional pay for working onsite. Being married to a healthcare provider, I can appreciate the concerns that school employees have about going back to work. Even with safety measures in place, they’ll face greater risks of contracting the virus or spreading it to loved ones than teachers who work remotely. They’ll also have to carry out their responsibilities in an altered environment, wearing protective equipment and helping students not only learn English and math, but also how to be extra diligent about hygiene. Extra dollars would provide an opportunity to reward teachers who are going above and beyond the call of duty.
As is often the case with funding, several details about distributing funds to support reopenings would need to be ironed out. First, the distribution model would need to ensure that funds actually reach the schools that are open—a concern, for example, in districts that reopen their elementary schools but keep their high schools shut. Second, states may need a process that verifies schools are actually open. Third, the model should take into account student needs, so that high-poverty schools that reopen receive more supplemental aid than wealthier ones.
Reopening schools safely should be a national and state priority. Students, foremost, need schools to be in operation so that they can continue making progress after significant time out of the classroom. Many parents are also counting on schools to reopen so that they can get back to work. Targeting relief funds towards reopening schools would be another step in supporting students and families during these difficult times.