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Legislative Update

Safely Reopening America’s Schools Becomes a National Conversation

By Jodi Peterson

Posted on 2020-07-20

In mid-July  an all-day White House Summit on Safely Reopening America’s Schools that  included the President and Secretary DeVos quickly turned into a politicized debate nationwide on how, and if, schools can--and should--reopen to in-person instruction safely this fall.

Opening schools is seen as a driver of the economy, and an election issue, and the President and DeVos have been vocal in speeches, on social media and interviews that schools return in person this fall.

During the summit the President and Secretary DeVos threatened to withhold federal funds from schools that do not physically re-open. The President also criticized the “very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools”   the CDC issued, which are now being revised. He blamed Democrats for the hesitation to open schools. Administration officials have hinted also that they will push new relief funding to students and not to districts where schools are closed. Read the Department of Education recap on the summit here.

The President’s proposals caused a backlash nationwide and resulted in mixed reactions from educators in key states.

Shortly after the White House summit, a POLITICO poll found that 65 percent of voters rejected the President’s threat to cut federal funding for schools that don't reopen.

The American Academy of Pediatrics joined with teacher and administrators groups and issued a statement saying a "one size fits all" model won't work for reopening schools.

On a podcast Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that "to the best of our capability, we should try as best as possible to get children back to school. And the reason we say that is because the unintended consequences and the negative ripple effects of keeping children out of school can have significant deleterious consequences.” But he added that “You don't want to send children back to school with a substantial risk to their health. You've got to do whatever you can to mitigate any negative effects on their health.”

The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts announced they will start the schoolyear with full distance learning, a decision President Trump called “terrible,” adding “I would tell parents and teachers that you should find yourself a new person – whoever’s in charge of that decision because it’s a terrible decision,” he said. “Because children and parents are dying from that trauma, too. They're dying because they can't do what they're doing. Mothers can’t go to work because all of a sudden they have to stay home and watch their child — and fathers.”

The announcement by Los Angeles and San Diego school officials to keep schools closed spurred similar decisions by other California districts, which means that the majority of California’s 6 million-plus K-12 students will likely remain at home this fall.

Meanwhile, in Florida, schools and districts are scrambling to comply with an order from the education commission that “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students,” and that schools “provide the full array of services that are required by law so that families who wish to educate their children in a brick and mortar school full time have the opportunity to do so." The order is also “subject to advice and orders" from state and local health departments and other executive orders.

According to media reports, the order is confusing to many, since it tells school districts that they have flexibility to consider a number of options while requiring them to open campuses.   Many districts want to remove the brick-and-mortar requirement from the order but the governor and education commission say that parents should have the option of whether they want to send their child to school five days a week.

Also last week the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report that said schools should “prioritize” reopening in the fall “with an emphasis on providing fulltime, in-person instruction in grades K-5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction” and that federal and state governments provide “significant resources” to cover the costs of COVID-19.

The report said keeping schools closed to in-person learning this fall “poses potential educational risks” and opening school buildings may provide benefits to families beyond education.

The report said children are at a lower risk from the virus, but “insufficient evidence” could not  determine how easily they contract the virus  and no definitive evidence about what strategies are most effective for limiting transmission, conceding that these factors make it difficult for school leaders to open schools.

Read the report here.

FY21 Appropriations Update

The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee is working on their bill to fund the Department of Education for fiscal 2021, which begins on Oct. 1.

The House is proposing a roughly 1 percent increase in spending on the Education Department and has rejected the cuts to education spending proposed by the Administration.

The legislation that was passed out of the Education appropriations subcommittee would provide $73.5 billion for the Education Department, a $716 million increase above the current level. Highlights:

  • $16.6 billion for Title I funding to low-income school districts, a $254 million increase from the current year.
  • $14.1 billion for special education, an increase of $208 million.
  • $1.2 billion for the Student Support and Enrichment Academic Grants under Title IV of ESSA, a $10 million increase
  • $2.2 billion for Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants (Title II-A), teacher training grants under Title II-A of ESSA , a $23 million increase.
  • $1.3 billion for Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers (afterschool programs) a $13 million increase.
  • $85 million, an increase of $20 million over the FY 2020 enacted level, for grants to expand opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), including computer science within the Education Innovation and Research program.
  • $2 billion for Career, Technical and Adult Education, an increase of $25 million above the FY 2020 enacted level .This amount includes $1.3 billion for CTE State Grants, an increase of $18 million above the FY 2020 enacted level.
  • 2.6 billion for higher education programs, an increase of $81 million above the FY 2020 enacted level and $768 million above the President’s budget request.

It is unlikely the Senate will take up this bill.

House Introduces Infrastructure Legislation, Includes Funding for School Building Upgrades

On June 4 the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report outlining how tens of thousands of school districts house crumbling building systems.

According to the report, 54 percent of the nation’s public school districts need to update or replace critical building systems such as outdated heating and air conditioning systems and some 30,000 schools need to update or replace interior lighting and about 28,000 schools need to update or replace roofing.

 In response, the House introduced and passed The “Moving Forward Act,” H.R. 2 (116),  a massive infrastructure bill that includes  $100 billion in grants and $30 billion in bond authority for high-poverty schools that need upgrades to their buildings for safety. Similar legislation is not anticipated in the Senate.

Stay tuned, and watch for more updates in future issues of NSTA Express.


Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communications, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at jpeterson@nsta.org or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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