School Climate & Safety Briefly Stated

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June 15, 2020 8 min read
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Faulty Air-Quality Systems Could Stymie Reopening Schools in COVID-19 Era

Every single day when school is in session, maintenance workers have to go to the roof of a school in Florida to fix its faulty HVAC system. What did the school do with some extra money? It bought security cameras.

That’s one of the 36,000 schools nationwide the Government Accountability Office estimates need HVAC updates, and it illustrates how other infrastructure demands are often elevated above schools’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning troubles.

The federal watchdog, in fact, estimates that 41 percent of districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their schools—even before COVID-19 is taken into account. When the report talks about “hazardous conditions,” those don’t touch on the virus.

In guidance unveiled last month to help schools reopen, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that schools “ensure that ventilation systems operate properly” and increase ventilation by opening windows and doors, unless that creates concerns for students with asthma.

It’s still unclear to what extent school-age children can and do transmit the coronavirus. Older school staff and those with chronic health conditions, however, are at higher risk of complications.

A recent article posted by the CDC shows just how risky poor ventilation can be. The article describes how a coronavirus outbreak in China was linked to a restaurant and notes that “droplet transmission was prompted by air-conditioned ventilation.”

Rick Hermans, who’s in charge of school issues on the COVID-19 task force at the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, says that the air conditioning system functioned poorly and just moved the virus around the restaurant, rather than properly diluting and moving the air out of the room.

Updating or replacing schools’ HVAC systems, of course, is going to be costly. And just where that money will come from during this economic slowdown is anybody’s guess.

What Students Are Saying About the Death Of George Floyd, Protests, and Their Futures

What do high school students think about all that’s swirling around the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer?

Education Week spoke with five graduating and rising seniors to get their take on how current events are shaping their views on education and their futures. Here are snippets from those conversations. You’ll have to go to edweek.org’s Rules for Engagement blog to read more.

Obrian Rosario, New York City: “Schools in New York City, specifically schools that are predominantly black and Latinx, tend to have more punitive practices imposed upon them,” such as more metal detectors and school resource officers and fewer guidance counselors. “What happens with that is we end up creating a school-to-prison pipeline.”

Marion Johnson, District of Columbia: He is attending North Carolina A&T State University in the fall and sees personal success as a means to chip away at a racist society. That, and voting. As proof, he points to the thin margin of victory with which President Donald Trump won the electoral college in 2016.

Sikirat Mustapha, New York City: “Teachers, principals, administrators, people hold implicit biases; they tend to assert that on you. Implicit biases are unconscious, and microaggressions do happen.”

Courtney Elliot, District of Columbia: She was disgusted when she saw the video of Floyd’s death. But that hasn’t deterred Elliot from her goal to become a cop. It’s taken a while for her family to come around to it, though. “There are a lot of black police officers who are using brutal force, and they didn’t want me to [become] one of those people.”

Stephen Abrams, San Diego: A gun-reform activist, Abrams is awed by the level of interest among his classmates. “It’s all we can really talk about right now. Plus, “I think also the pressure that people have put on people to not be silent— that your silence is showing your privilege and that you don’t care about systemic oppression. People don’t want to be viewed that way. People want to be on the right side of history.”

To Combat Racism, Students Demand Schools Reconceive What They Teach, How It’s Taught, and Teacher Training

Students across the country aren’t just taking to the streets to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death. They’re making demands of their schools through petition drives as well.

A petition posted recently on Facebook, aimed at schools in Frederick County, Md., is a prime example. It was inspired by demand letters drafted by the alumni of Xavier College Preparatory School in Arizona and the Morris County School of Technology in New Jersey.

The Maryland letter calls on the district to “re-examine how we honor Black lives in our education system in elementary, middle, and high school curricula—not simply as a reactionary means but in direct ways that critically challenge how we frame our nation’s history.”

It demands that the district conduct a “third-party, holistic review” of its curriculum, hiring, and student-body administration, among other things, and that it hold implicit-bias training for district faculty and staff. They also want to hear speakers talk about racial justice and white privilege and to take field trips to places that can teach students about the Black experience.

Students in the Monmouth County Vocational district in New Jersey are circulating a five-page letter, which “respectfully insists” that the board adopt a “comprehensive four-year curriculum that addresses systemic racism and police brutality.” It lists seven action steps, including revising the English and history curricula to cover the perspectives and stories of people of color and training faculty to be leaders in anti-racism.

In Newtown, Conn., two 2017 graduates are circulating a petition that takes the district to task for failing to provide an adequate multicultural education.

“We have taken the time to reflect on our experience and education in Newtown schools,” it says. “Although we learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, and we read To Kill a Mockingbird, the formal teachings of modern-day systemic and institutionalized racism, police brutality, or white privilege were next to none.”

The Newtown students asked their school board to make sure curriculum includes discussion of current events related to race when they happen and fosters “safe open dialogue” about them. They want the district to include books on current, institutionalized racism and white privilege, add a course specifically designed to teach students about systemic racism, and “end the notion of teaching students to be colorblind.”

States Challenge DeVos Over Title IX Rules Meant to Protect Victims of Assault, Harassment

Balancing the scales is what women—primarily—and their allies had hoped for in Obama administration Title IX guidance on how schools and universities treated sexual-harassment and -assault complaints.

The Trump administration wasted little time in dumping that guidance and, as of last month, replacing it with rules that many believe will make it nigh impossible for alleged victims to get a fair hearing—or any hearing for that matter.

Now, the heavy pushback: Seventeen states—mostly blue—and the District of Columbia this month sued U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education over those rules.

Under the new rules, schools must respond to unwelcome treatment on the basis of sex that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it infringes on an individual’s education. The previous rule required only one of those criteria be present.

“The Department’s definition requires students to endure repeated and escalating levels of harassment to the point of risking school avoidance; detrimental mental-health effects, such as ... depression; declines in attendance; withdrawal; and even dropout before the rule permits schools to stop the discrimination under Title IX,” the suit says. It also opposes the timing of the rule.

“Under normal circumstances, requiring schools to overhaul their policies and procedures, renegotiate collective bargaining agreements, and implement the rule’s hiring, training, and other requirements in less than three months would impose an extraordinarily difficult burden,” the plaintiffs say. “Given the ongoing uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the strain it has placed on education institutions, defendants’ decision to require compliance with the rule by August 14, 2020, is inexplicable.”

Freefall in Education Jobs Not As Bad as Reported—for Now

Schools are a major driver for local economies, and in some places, the driver. Just think of it: Nationwide, they employ 3.8 million teachers and 3-million-plus more paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, after-school workers, and the like.

So when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics last month reported a precipitous drop in local education jobs in April, it got plenty of attention. But point of fact: The looming COVID-19 budget cuts for K-12 schools in most states and their economic impact have yet to occur, and the vast majority of the nation’s districts have yet to lay off staff.

So what gives? It turns out the BLS considers hourly workers at schools unemployed if a school is closed—as they are every summer, for example. And because the nation’s entire public school system unexpectedly began closing up on-site instruction in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the bureau counted more than 468,800 public school employees as unemployed in April.

Still, the report is a grim reminder of the impact of the abrupt shutdowns on hundreds of thousands of employees. When schools were closing in March, many districts told their hourly workers they’d keep them on the payroll for the rest of the school year. But as state sales and income tax receipts started falling short, many school boards furloughed hourly employees.

Worse times are apparently ahead. In the next two years, finance experts expect schools to make up to $300 billion worth of cuts and lay off more than 350,000 workers because of the economic downturn.

Briefly Stated Contributors: Evie Blad, Daarel Burnette II, Catherine Gewertz, Arianna Prothero, and Andrew Ujifusa. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2020 edition of Education Week

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