Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: February 10, 2021

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February 09, 2021 8 min read
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FCC Edges Forward on Use of E-Rate Aid for Home Technology

What a difference a few months make. Until November, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, took an unbending stance against allowing the E-Rate program to subsidize internet access in students’ homes. Just last week, however, with the Republican gone, the FCC took the first step toward possibly reversing that long-standing position.

The agency formally requested comments, until Feb. 16, on expanding the program to help school districts more comprehensively address the digital divide that has kept millions of students from continuous instruction while learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Questions in the request include which types of devices would be most useful for students who are learning at home; what guidance the FCC should provide to ensure that districts are getting a bargain when making technology purchases; and whether it should reimburse schools for purchases they’ve made in the past year to address these issues.

Equity is a big part of the commission’s focus: “How can the commission ensure that available funds are efficiently targeted and focused on the needs of rural students; Native American, African American, and Latinx students; students with disabilities; and other populations of students that are [disproportionately] affected by the homework gap or are more expensive or difficult to reach?”

Using E-Rate funds for off-campus purposes isn’t without precedent. In recent years, the agency has allocated funds for residential areas surrounding schools that serve students from Native American tribal lands or students with medical needs.

The commission’s E-Rate program, established in 1996, has sent billions of dollars to districts for expanding Wi-Fi access in school buildings. When the pandemic forced the vast majority of students to learn remotely last spring, a wide range of advocates urged the federal government to grant permission to use E-Rate funds for home connectivity as well.

But Pai repeatedly refused, arguing that the law dictates the funds must be used for “classrooms.”

Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency’s interim chairwoman, has strongly advocated that it should take a more active role in addressing the digital divide

Most Teachers—at Least Those in Small Districts—Are Back in School, Many Along With Students

High-profile cases like the Chicago school system notwithstanding, the majority of the nation’s teachers are already back in their buildings.

That is one of the latest findings from the EdWeek Research Center, which is polling educators monthly during the pandemic. Sixty percent of teachers say they work from their school buildings all the time, and 21 percent report being there some of the time, according to the Jan. 27-28 survey of 555 teachers, 210 principals, and 295 district leaders.

In most cases, students are in school with them—at least some are, for some of the time. Just 17 percent of teachers report that they are spending all their time working from home and that all their students are learning remotely.

These new COVID-19 realities might explain why most teachers, principals, and district leaders say they approve of President Joe Biden’s call to resume in-person learning in the next 100 days.

Support for the 100-day reopening plan varies significantly, of course, based on whether students are currently learning remotely or in person.

In-person learning rates hit an all-time high since the research center started tracking this metric in July. Twenty percent of district leaders say all their students are learning in school buildings, up from 15 percent in December. In-person learning is significantly more common in smaller districts with fewer than 2,500 students than in larger districts with 10,000 or more.

But since most districts are small—and this survey is nationally representative—most of the district leaders who responded work in those small districts. Larger districts, meanwhile, serve more than 2 of every 3 K-12 public school students.

The Biden administration’s plan to reopen schools safely relies on large-scale coronavirus testing of students and staff members. Currently, less than 10 percent of district leaders and principals say teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, food-service workers, bus drivers, and custodians are required to get tested. So implementing large-scale testing programs could be a major logistical challenge.

Republican Senators Turn Up the Budgetary Heat On Schools to Hold In-Person Classes

Republican senators are growing impatient with schools that aren’t holding in-person classes, and they’re using the COVID-19 relief package being negotiated in Congress to put public pressure on them.

Democrats control Congress and the Biden administration has shown no interest so far in conditioning COVID-19 aid on in-person classes or demanding that schools open their doors. (The administration has pitched a $130 billion aid proposal for K-12.) Similar efforts last summer to push school reopening, led by the Trump administration, failed.

But last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said President Joe Biden was bowing to pressure from special interests instead of putting children first.

“Science is not the obstacle. Federal money is not the obstacle,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “The obstacle is a lack of willpower ... among the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., meanwhile, announced he and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., had introduced a budget amendment that would withhold future COVID-19 relief from schools that don’t hold in-person classes after their teachers get a chance to get the virus vaccine. (Blunt is on the Senate subcommittee that handles federal education spending.)The day before, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he was introducing a similar amendment that would restrict federal relief from schools “that are refusing to reopen.”

And late last month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said “not one penny of taxpayer COVID money should go to schools that want to get paid not to work” while students are at home and “falling behind academically.”

One of Scott’s colleagues on the Senate education committee, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., channeled this sentiment during last week’s confirmation hearing for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary. Burr stressed to Cardona that many parents are “at their wits end” during the pandemic due to various challenges surrounding remote learning. Cardona, in turn, promised senators that “we will work to reopen schools safely,” but said many disadvantaged students will need more support to help them academically and otherwise.

CDC: Shots for Teachers Unneeded to Reopen Schools

Should schools reopen before all educators are vaccinated for COVID-19? A thorny—and potentially life-and-death issue. But last week, the go-ahead got the endorsement of the new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I ... want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” said Rochelle Walensky.

It’s not a policy reversal. The CDC has never said all teachers should be vaccinated before in-person learning can resume. In fact, it’s not even official CDC policy, says the White House. That policy will be detailed in upcoming guidance, said Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

A federal vaccine-advisory board has recommended that educators and school employees be targeted for early doses, and many states have followed those recommendations.

But as some large districts, such as Chicago’s, continue ongoing discussions about how to bring students back to buildings, teachers have pressed for delays until they receive both doses of the two-dose regimen.

A spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers said the union takes a position that vaccine distribution should be “aligned with reopening,” targeting vaccines to elementary teachers in areas that are seeking to reopen earlier grades first, for example. “

The National Education Association strongly stands behind educators who have determined that they need access to COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that their workplaces are safer, whether they are currently working in person or will be returning to school buildings,” said union President Becky Pringle, “and educators need to have access to COVID-19 vaccines now, period.”

High Court Justice Rejects Plea to Dodge Vaccinations

For those parents in New York who want to bypass school vaccination requirements for their children but still expect access to in-person or remote instruction for them, forget the backing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The parents say their children have medically fragile conditions and have doctors’ exemptions from vaccines that would harm them.

“Excluding medically fragile children from distance learning because they are missing a vaccine that might harm or kill them serves no valid state interest and will cause irreparable harm,” said the injunction request submitted to Sotomayor.

In a brief order on Jan. 29, she denied the parents’ emergency injunction request.

New York state, which tightened its vaccine requirements after a measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019, said in papers filed in a lower court that districts denied medical exemptions to the students because the children’s physicians had not cited “a specific contraindication or precaution consistent with a nationally recognized evidence-based standard of care,” as required by a state health department regulation.“

These rules are meant to protect not only children’s classmates and teachers but also the public at large,” the state said in the brief. “Because remote-learning children remain part of the community, lower vaccination rates among them could contribute to contagious disease outbreaks.

”New York state repealed its religious exemption to school immunization requirements in 2019 after the measles outbreak, and the health department tightened rules for granting medical exemptions.

Seven families in upstate New York sued the state health department and several area school districts last July, arguing that immunization requirements and districts’ refusal to allow the children to learn remotely violated their 14th Amendment due-process right to direct the upbringing of their children, among other rights.

A federal district judge last year denied a preliminary injunction, ruling that it is well settled that states may establish mandatory school vaccination requirements and give local officials enforcement authority.

Evie Blad, Staff Writer; Holly Kurtz, Director; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor; Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer; and Karen Diegmueller, Senior Contributing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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