The Education Department released $122 billion to states on Wednesday to help reopen K-12 schools – the pillar of the Biden’s administration’s plan to help the majority of elementary and middle schools resume in-person learning more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered every school district in the country.
The funding is part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package meant to bolster efforts to get children back into classrooms amid mounting concerns over mental health and learning loss, especially for the country’s most vulnerable students whose families and communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of the pandemic.
“The greatest priority we have here at the agency and my greatest priority right now is the quick reopening of schools across the country,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a press call.
“Since March of last year, educators and schools have adapted to what the health and safety guidelines were, so we are going to continue to do that moving forward,” he said. “This spring we’re wanting to see schools reopen using the mitigation strategies and getting students an opportunity for in-person learning. In the fall, I would anticipate if the continuation of vaccinations happen – and we have every reason to believe we will be able to do that by the fall – then schools can reopen in-person for all students.”
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In letters sent Wednesday, the Education Department notified states of their allotted amounts, which is pegged to the number of students each state serves. California is set to get $15 billion and Texas $12 billion, for example, while Wyoming is set to receive $300 million and Alaska $360 million.
The funding, which will be available next month, can be used for a variety of things, including to purchase personal protective equipment, improve ventilation, obtain additional space to ensure social distancing, bolster payroll to prevent layoffs, hire additional staff, fund summer or after-school programs to blunt learning loss or provide Wi-Fi hotspots and devices.
In addition, Cardona announced that the Department of Health and Human Services is directing $10 billion of its virus-relief funding to help schools establish testing and surveillance programs, which teachers unions, who have been pushing for additional dollars to help schools establish testing, say is critical to allowing them to reopen.
“The testing is a key ingredient to not just opening schools but to keep schools open,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Testing lets you see problems before they become an outbreak. This is what’s going to help us, particularly if the variants spread here like they spread in Europe. This is really, really, really important.”
School leaders, from small, rural districts to sprawling urban ones, cheered the funding that they’ve been begging Congress for since last summer, arguing it was untenable to reopen for in-person learning without it.
“We absolutely would not be able to offer in-person learning right now without the money coming from the stimulus,” says Krestin Bahr, superintendent of Eatonville School District, the 3,000-student district in Washington state near Mount Rainier, which just returned all K-12 students back to school in-person last week.
Bahr says the funding will be used to continue to provide masks and plastic shields for staff, hire an additional nurse, continue testing and contact tracing and to establish programs to help students with learning loss. The district also plans to use the funding to continue contracting with public health experts who walked through their schools, assessed cleaning products being used, airflow and ventilation issues and made recommendations for how to allow students to participate in band and sports.
In Chicago, where Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson anticipates receiving $1.8 billion in funding for the school system, the money will be used to backfill losses in revenue, establish new programs to address academic, social and emotional learning losses and hire more nurses and social workers, as well as to continue to provide personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
“It’s never been more essential to ensure public schools, particularly those that serve high numbers of Black and Latinx students from low-income households, are equitably funded and have the resources necessary to address the unprecedented needs brought on by the pandemic,” Jackson says. “These funds will ensure we can make the investments needed to address unfinished learning and mounting social and emotional needs, and we will be working in the months ahead to ensure these resources make a real difference for our students.”
The relief package also provides an additional $7.6 billion for students with disabilities, those experiencing homelessness and Tribal agencies, as well as $40 billion for higher education. Details about how funding for higher education will be disbursed are not yet available.
During the call, Cardona was careful to walk a fine line between relaying the administration’s urgency that every school find a way to reopen for in-person learning – and quickly – and underscoring that schools must stick to the risk-mitigation strategies outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February.
“As we approach the spring it’s really important that we recognize what schools provide for our students,” he said. “Yes, reopening K-12 schools is the goal, doing it quickly is the goal. But let’s not forget, there are so many students who are wondering right now, ‘Am I going to be able to walk the stage at graduation?’ They deserve an opportunity to walk across the stage so their parents can see them graduate.”
Cardona also urged educators and school leaders to get creative in order to offer students the opportunity to participate in sports, plays and other extracurricular activities, which he said were, at least for students, the most important part of their K-12 experience.
“School reopening is about creating those opportunities for our students, doing it now and doing it in a safe way,” he added. “We can do it, the American Rescue Plan is providing the resources needed to do it safely, and the additional COVID testing in schools is just going to accelerate that process.”
In-person school and extracurricular activities must happen, Cardona said, according to safety guidelines.
“We are going to take the lead from our health and safety partners to make sure that any strategy that we are using in our schools aligns with the health and safety expectations,” he continued. “And we will continue to work closely with our partners at HHS and CDC to make sure that whatever recommendations they have for keeping learning environments safe that we adhere to those.”
Among one of the most controversial recommendations included in the reopening guidelines from the CDC was that schools must adhere to social distancing of 6 feet. The recommendation drew criticism from some who called it too conservative and said it will prevent urban school districts, which have much less space, from being able to reopen at all.
The World Health Organization recommends schools enforce social distancing of 3 feet. Research generally shows that while 6 feet is optimal, 3 feet is crucial and can only work as long as other risk mitigation strategies, like masks, are enforced. The biggest problem is that the majority of the research comes from rural or suburban districts that not only have more space but also have more resources to apply other risk mitigation measures and whose families have been less impacted by the pandemic.
The CDC is currently reviewing the specific social distancing guidance, but Cardona said for now schools should stick to 6 feet.
How to effectively implement CDC guidance is the type of issue set to headline the Education Department’s upcoming national school reopening summit, set to take place March 24, along with states and school districts sharing some of their success stories and suggestions for how to stem the academic, social and emotional learning loss that occurred over the last year, especially for historically underserved students.
“We’ve been talking about school reopening but this time now to hear from those who have done it really well, to hear about how it’s working,” Cardona said. “We really need to hear from the field what’s happened.”