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Don’t Make Schools Physically Reopen to Get COVID Aid, Groups Urge Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 30, 2020 3 min read
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A coalition of education groups have told Congress that the new coronavirus aid package introduced by Senate Republicans needs a big overhaul, and that the federal government shouldn’t condition federal relief money on schools holding in-person classes.

The Thursday letter from organizations representing big urban school districts, teachers’ unions, local education officials, and others says lawmakers need to abandon the approach to K-12 in the HEALS Act, introduced by Senate Republicans on Monday. Instead, they say, the House and Senate should provide schools more money, allow schools to access all the aid regardless of their plans for face-to-face classes, fund more internet access for students, and leave out any language authorizing money for private school choice.

“The bill misses the mark and falls far short of the needs facing our nation’s schools, which our groups have been clear to repeatedly communicate and highlight,” says the letter to congressional leaders sent by the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Council of the Great City Schools, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and several others.

The letter also serves as a reminder that negotiations over new COVID relief, which have already been acrimonious, could get uglier still in the coming days. The Senate has a recess scheduled from Aug. 10 to Sept. 7, and while several senators would likely prefer to be campaigning during that time rather than be stuck in Washington, it’s not a sure thing that a new aid bill will be done before then.

The HEALS Act provides K-12 schools with $70 billion; two-thirds of that funding must go to schools with some sort of plan to open buildings for the 2020-21 school year and hold in-person classes. The legislation would allow for hybrid plans, but schools that hold remote-only classes would not be eligible for this portion of the aid. The remaining one-third would go to schools regardless of their reopening plans. Both public and private schools would be eligible for the $70 billion aid.

In addition, the HEALS Act would provide certain protections from legal liability for schools, but doesn’t include any relief for state and local governments, which could leave many schools in a deep hole as their budgets get cut. And while it authorizes a one-time school choice program to support private school scholarships during the pandemic, the HEALS Act does not provide federal funding for it. (“HEALS” stands for “Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protections, and Schools.”)

However, Senate Democrats have slammed the proposals from the GOP, especially plans to condition education aid on schools reopening their doors, before the HEALS Act was officially released. They said the public pressure from the Trump administration—which negotiated extensively with Senate Republicans about the HEALS Act—for schools to resume face-to-face instruction next year has been heavy-handed and disregards safety for students and school staff.

In their letter to Capitol Hill, the groups stress that the $70 billion is less than half of what many organizations have called for in additional K-12 virus relief. They also say in the next aid bill that Congress should do the following:

  • Remove any conditions on federal coronavirus relief related to whether schools physically reopen.
  • Provide $4 billion to the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program to help provide more students internet access and improve remote learning.
  • Ditch the HEALS Act language authorizing federal money for private school choice.
  • Clarify that equitable services funded by coronavirus relief should support disadvantaged private school students, and not private school students in general. (More on that issue here.)

Read the full letter here.

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