Schools may be out for the summer, but the heat is on for them to reopen in less than two months.
That was one big takeaway from a congressional hearing Tuesday, in which several senators as well as federal health officials agreed that getting children back into classrooms next fall is vital for students, their parents, and for the nation at large.
The Senate education committee hearing took place as public pressure mounts on schools to resume some form of normal operations in the upcoming academic year, due in part to concerns about a weakened economy and the long-term welfare of children and families.
Some help is apparently on the way in the form of additional information. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield told senators that testing guidance for K-12 schools will be published later this week. That guidance will supplement prior CDC guidance for schools, Redfield said. The previous guidance called on all school staff to wear masks, a controversial recommendation.
In his opening statement, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, said that while there is some risk if schools reopen during the pandemic, “The greater risk is not going back to school.” He cited concerns about everything from student learning loss to child nutrition during the time that children have been forced to stay at home. Alexander has repeatedly stressed the importance of testing to reopening schools.
There’s research under way to determine just how easily children transmit the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Alexander. He also said that communities that take appropriate health precautions, including wearing masks, will boost efforts to resume regular classes, adding, “It is very important to get the children back to school.”
Fauci also said that schools could participate in pooled tests—in which samples from multiple individuals are all tested at once—in order to save time and resources.
The senators and federal health officials channeled growing urgency nationwide for schools to return to some kind of normalcy in less than two months. Here’s just a sample of that mounting pressure from roughly the past 24 hours:
- In new guidance, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly pushed for schools to resume in-person classes in the upcoming school year because of the “known harms” to children, families, and communities when students are kept at home. The group also pointed out that “children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.” Alexander highlighted this guidance in his opening remarks Tuesday.
- U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., called on all schools in his home state to restart regular instruction in the fall, telling the Associated Press: “It would be crazy to not completely reopen our school systems.”
- On Tuesday before the hearing, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stressed that schools are at the crux of America’s recovery from the pandemic. “I would be prioritizing opening the schools. I would do what it takes from a policy standpoint to ... open the schools,” Gottlieb told CNBC. “If you can’t get children back into schools you really can’t restart the economy in a robust fashion.”
President Donald Trump has also repeatedly urged schools to reopen, although he’s cautioned that older and vulnerable teachers should stay home at least initially.
Meanwhile, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn told lawmakers he was very optimistic that there would be forms of treatment available to teachers and others working in schools in the fall, although he did not say that such treatments would include a vaccine.
Education officials have responded to pressure on schools to reopen by saying that in order to resume regular instruction, they’ll need a lot more resources from Washington as state budgets in particular suffer during a weakened economy.
Emergency Relief for Schools
Alexander has shared his own estimate that it would take between $50 billion and $75 billion for K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities to reopen safely. That estimate covers health and hygiene resources, although it does not take into account large budget concerns such as educator salaries and remote learning needs. But that figure might serve as a starting point and not the ultimate destination for Capitol Hill horse-trading about how much aid schools receive.
In a Tuesday floor speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said future virus relief legislation should focus on “kids, jobs, and health care.”
The lobbying push for the federal government to give schools an emergency bailout has grown in the last two months, ever since Congress provided roughly $31 billion in aid for both K-12 and higher education. The biggest request so far is a $305 billion request from House Democrats in emergency aid for school districts. And the Council of Chief State School Officers recently said that it would take roughly $245 billion to reopen schools safely; that estimate covered a much broader range of needs than Alexander’s estimate.
However, it’s not at all clear that schools will get close to what education associations are calling for. A COVID-19 relief bill written by House Democrats and passed by the House in late May would provides $58 billion in direct aid to districts. The legislation includes nearly $1 billion in general relief to state and local governments. Some of that relief might reach school district budget. Yet there’s concern that state and local governments would use that aid to offset their own cuts to education budgets.
At Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the committee, urged Congress to push the Trump administration to share a national vaccine plan and to put sufficient testing and contact tracing resources in place. She said that adults and children “do not have what they need to safely return to work or schools, period.”
And Fauci said he remained concerned that “things could get very bad” if appropriate measures to contain the virus are not taken in communities.
“We are all in this together,” Fauci told senators.
Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., speaks during a Senate education committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 30, 2020. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)