Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: January 20, 2021

Stories You May Have Missed
January 20, 2021 9 min read
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Biden Seeks Massive New COVID-19 Aid For K-12 Schools

President-elect Joe Biden is calling for $130 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, ramped up testing efforts, and accelerated vaccine distribution strategies to help reopen “the majority of K-8 schools” within the first 100 days of his administration.

The proposals are part of a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” that also seeks $350 billion in aid to state, local, and territorial governments. But the plan will still require approval from Congress, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats.

“We can [open schools] if we give school districts, communities, and states the clear guidance they need as well as the resources they will need that they cannot afford right now because of the economic crisis we are in,” Biden said in announcing the plan Jan. 14. “That means more testing and transportation, additional cleaning and sanitizing services, protective equipment, and ventilation systems in the schools.

”The CARES Act, a relief package that passed in the spring, included $13.2 billion in aid for school districts, and a spending compromise enacted in December included an additional $57 billion.

The education relief funding in Biden’s proposal could be used for a wide range of purposes, including hiring additional staff to reduce class sizes, modifying spaces to allow for more social distancing, improving ventilation systems, providing school nurses for schools that don’t have them, building up remote learning resources, and providing additional academic and social-emotional supports for students when they return to the classroom.

A portion would be set aside for a COVID-19 Educational Equity Challenge Grant, “which will sup-port state, local and tribal governments ... to advance equity- and evidence-based policies to respond to COVID-related educational challenges,” according to an outline released by the transition team.

The plan also calls for increased Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, which would allow schools to seek reimbursement for supplies like masks and cleaning equipment. And it would provide emergency expanded sick leave to allow families to quarantine without risking lost wages.

On vaccines, the funding would include $50 billion for a “massive expansion of testing” that would include increased use of rapid tests, expanding lab capacity to process tests faster, and aid to schools and local governments to carry out testing programs.

Policymakers Are Talking Tough When It Comes To Opening and Funding Schools Amid COVID-19

Tough times. Tough choices. Tough talk.

That’s what we’re hearing from some policymakers during these dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Take what’s going on in Chicago, where the mayor and the head of the school system told teachers and other staff to show up in person or lose their pay, among other penalties.

In-person schooling resumed last week for prekindergartners and those in special education whose families opted to attend. Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union pointed out, were not given that option.

The union argues that the roughly 355,000-student district hasn’t gone far enough to protect teachers.

District officials say schools have been cleaned, thousands of air purifiers placed in classrooms, and anyone entering a school must first complete an online health screening. Chicago schools have also rolled out a voluntary testing program, where teachers get COVID-19 tests roughly once a month to monitor potential outbreaks. Nearly 200 employees failed the health screening Jan. 14.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, which has the nation’s highest rate of new cases of the virus, Gov. Doug Ducey last week hardened his resistance to school closures. The GOP governor in-tends to fund schools based on their actual enrollment, not at pre-pandemic levels, said Gretchen Conger, his deputy chief of staff. That could open up big holes in schools’ budgets.

Ducey has refused pressure from state schools chief Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, to pause in-person learning amid the rise in infections. She said he was ignoring the reality of COVID-19 and its effects on schools, teachers, and students.

In contrast, leaders of South Carolina’s largest school system are giving $1,000 bonuses to all the district’s 10,000 employees, in addition to extra hours of paid time off if they need to quarantine because of COVID-19.

Lynda Leventis-Wells, the chairwoman of the Greenville County school board, said the actions will give board members the ability “to recognize in a tangible way the tireless efforts of employees over the last 10 months. ... Our employees have responded in a big way to every challenge.

Supreme Court to Hear Case on Whether Schools May Discipline Students for Internet Speech

Do schools have the right to interfere in online student speech? That’s at the heart of a case the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear after sidestepping the issue several times in recent years.

The court’s precedent was set in 1969 in the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which applies to student speech that occurs off campus—long before the internet was in the minds of school administrators, jurists, or students. Now, though, the question has become urgent as schools use remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Tinker, the court upheld the right of students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War but allowed room for administrators to regulate speech that would disrupt the work and discipline of the school. The high court has narrowed student-speech rights in a series of cases since Tinker.

The new case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., stems from a 2017 incident in which a sophomore, identified as B.L., posted a message on Snapchat one Saturday night that said, “F**k school ... f **k cheer f **k everything” after she was placed on the junior varsity cheerleading team instead of the varsity squad. She was subsequently removed from the JV team for the season.

B.L. and her parents sued, alleging that her removal violated the First Amendment free-speech clause and that the school’s rules were unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.

The student won in a federal district court, a decision an appellate panel unanimously affirmed last June.

“As arms of the state, public schools have an interest in teaching civility by example, persuasion, and encouragement, but they may not leverage the coercive power with which they have been entrusted to do so,” Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote.

The panel also clarified that “Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech—that is, speech that is ... not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur.”

At the same time, it acknowledged that five other federal appeals courts have ruled that Tinker can be applied to student off-campus speech when there is a sufficient connection to school.

Inequities Persist in Schools in Philadelphia Despite Upgrades

Though most Philadelphia schools have made academic strides in recent years, 6 in 10 students still attend a low-performing school, and the picture is much starker for Black and Latino children and those living in poor neighborhoods.

The patterns are not new, but the persistent inequities are notable.

The data come from a report, released last week by the Philadelphia School Partnership, which analyzed three years of enrollment, student achievement, and growth at schools serving about 140,000 children in K-8 in traditional public schools and charters.

The children account for 70 percent of the 200,000 students enrolled in traditional public and charter schools combined. (The report did not include high schools in its research or compare district to charter school performance.)

Despite the steady progress Philadelphia public district and charter schools have made in improving school quality over the last few years, stubborn inequity remains in how students are enrolled in schools,” said David Saenz, a spokesperson for the partnership, a nonprofit that aims to expand the number of students in high-quality schools. The analysis also comes while school buildings are closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 60 percent of elementary students attend a low-performing district or charter school—those below the average achievement for city schools, according to the partnership. Black and Latino students are overrepresented in those schools, while white and Asian children are overrepresented in those deemed high-performing.

No elementary school serving a school population that’s more than 85 percent economically disadvantaged is high achieving, says the report.

Less than 10 percent of Black and Hispanic students are enrolled in high-achieving schools; 45 percent of white students attend schools in the high-achieving tier.

While an alarming number of schools struggle, many have demonstrated growth over the last three years. Most schools, low and high achievers, outperform Pennsylvania averages for student progress.

Still, the report concludes, “in most instances the growth is not translating into meaningful achievement gains.”

Former Principal of Year Sues Florida District for Termination

Fortunes seemed to have turned quickly for Mary Williams.

In 2018, she was named principal of the year for Florida’s Seminole County district. Now, she’s suing the district, claiming she was fired because of her “alcohol-dependency problem.”

In a federal lawsuit filed this month, Williams argues that the district discriminated against her because of her disability, which is her alcohol addiction, failed to abide by the federal Family Medical Leave Act, and wrongly tried to dictate the treatment Williams would receive.

Less than a year after she was honored, district officials informed Williams she would not be rehired for the 2019-20 school year.

The nonrenewal letter provided no information as to why she was not being offered another yearly employment contract. She earned about $121,200 her last year on the job.

District officials said Williams had no discipline letters or information in her employment file.

Williams told administrators in December 2018 that she had an alcohol-dependency problem, the suit says, and in February, she spent time at a treatment facility.

According to the lawsuit, Williams returned to work Feb. 19, at-tending a districtwide administrative meeting.

She had not taken any medication or had any alcohol that day, the lawsuit said, but her supervisor told Williams to leave the meeting. The next day, the supervisor told Williams she could only return to school if a district-hired psychiatrist deemed her fit for work.

The suit claims that the psychiatrist said Williams would only be cleared to return to work if she took monthly injections of Vivitrol, a medication used to treat alcohol dependence and one her doctors and counselors did not want her to take partly because of potential side effects.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Tribune News Service; Evie Blad, Staff Writer; Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer; and Karen Diegmueller, Senior Contributing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed


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