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OP-ED: Schools need more help to reopen safely

Victoria Jackson and Nicholas Johnson
Progressive Media Project (TNS)
People holds signs and honk their horns at the Open Schools Car Rally and press conference organized by The Students First Coalition on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in Los Angeles. Supporters gather at the Board of Supervisors Office to encourage Los Angeles County to reopen schools during the pandemic. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The COVID-19 relief bill being considered by Congress would provide schools with $130 billion in new flexible funds, the largest one-time federal investment in K-12 education in U.S. history.

Schools need this money to support students through distance learning, safely resume in-person instruction, help with students’ socio-emotional issues, and let them catch up on the studies they missed during the pandemic. It would be a big step toward supporting students and educators at a critical time.

But states, too, must step up to the task by addressing long-standing educational challenges that the pandemic has compounded. They must make their own investments in K-12 education, supported by tax increases as needed, to improve education for all children by funding schools adequately and equitably.

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COVID-19 has created enormous financial problems for schools. The state and local tax revenues that fund schools are barely adequate even in the best of times; now they’ve fallen due to the drop in economic activity, causing cuts to staffing and teacher pay.

Operating in-person schools safely will require investments in personal protective equipment, custodial staff, HVAC systems and additional transportation costs, among other things. Just for the current school year, schools could need up to $12.6 billion for items like plexiglass shields and hand sanitizer, $12.7 billion for custodial staff time and $19 billion for transportation. And schools will undoubtedly need to extend some costs into the next school year.

In addition, closing the digital divide to ensure that all students and teachers have access to needed devices and connectivity will cost up to $12 billion over 12 months, plus up to $6 billion for each additional year. While many schools have already diverted money toward these costs during the pandemic, more is needed to narrow this gap as in-person learning resumes.

Many schools will need to add teachers or portable classrooms to reduce class sizes to meet social distancing guidelines. A 10% increase in staffing over the next year would cost schools $35 billion.

A quarter of schools lack a school nurse, and most schools lack the counseling support needed to help students navigate the mental health challenges of returning to school. Adding needed nurses and counselors will cost several billion dollars per year.

Most significantly, schools will need to lengthen the school day or school year and hire tutors to support the kids whose learning has fallen behind the most, at a potential cost of up to $100 billion per year.

These costs will further strain a public education system that’s already inadequately and inequitably funded. Many school districts never recovered from the layoffs they imposed due to funding cuts during and after the Great Recession in 2008.

When COVID-19 hit, schools overall were employing 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers even though they were educating 1.5 million more children. Moreover, funding levels are lowest for schools that serve the greatest shares of students from low-income families and students of color, even though inadequate funding hurts the education of those students the most.

Money matters in education. Adequate school funding helps raise high school completion rates, close achievement gaps and increase the productivity of the future workforce by boosting student performance.

Our children and our schools need more than a return to a pre-COVID-19 “normal” that left many students behind.

Congress may soon take a big step to help meet those challenges, but states must do the same: by generating more tax revenue to better fund schools and targeting aid to schools educating the greatest share of low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners.

— Victoria Jackson is Senior Policy Analyst and Nicholas Johnson is Senior Vice President for State Fiscal Policy, both at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.