Dallas public schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is considering plexiglass in classrooms to protect students from the coronavirus while also adhering to a state mandate that all students who want a full-time, in-classroom education receive one. In Clayton County, Ga., Superintendent Morcease Beasley is recommending all students start the school year remotely — and he is planning a “virtual learning academy” to help students benefit more from distance learning. In Rochester, N.Y., 10 percent of teachers have already been laid off, with more job cuts expected soon if federal relief doesn’t arrive.
Weeks before the 2020-21 school year is due to start, plans vary wildly from district to district, with school superintendents across the country scrambling to figure out how to safely educate children during a pandemic and a looming financial crisis. Many of these superintendents are predicting draconian budget cuts and chaos if they are forced to reopen schools without billions of dollars in federal aid that is so far languishing in the U.S. Senate. In the clearest sign yet that many local school officials have deep concerns about how to pay for or guarantee a safe learning environment, the San Diego and Los Angeles superintendents today announced all classes will be online-only through the fall.
President Trump made headlines last week when he threatened to withhold funding from districts that do not open their doors and bring students back in person for the fall term. But with less than 1 percent of the March congressional relief package going to K-12 schools, educators and their unions say that without more federal funding, opening schools will be dangerous in some places and impossible in others.
The president of the National Education Association, which represents 3 million teachers across the country, called Trump’s comments a “bombshell.” She said a close friend from her teaching days has been talking about “getting our wills in order.”
“She said, ‘If they make us go back, we know that some of us will die,’” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García told Yahoo News in an interview. “We know we’ll carry it home to our families. We know that some of our students will die.”
Eskelsen García said most school districts are already preparing for severe budget cuts due to the coronavirus-induced financial downturn and resulting state budget reductions. In May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called a $3 trillion, House-approved relief bill containing K-12 money “dead on arrival.” More recently, he has said the Senate is likely to consider an additional relief package, which would prioritize money for schools, but he has not elaborated. McConnell, who diverged from the president by saying he believes schools should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when reopening, this week told his hometown newspaper, “We can’t get back to normal if the kids are not back in school.” A McConnell spokesman did not respond to an email request for comment.
Eskelsen García said the funding situation is dire and time is running out.
“We’re going to have to have sanitizing stations all over the place, we’re going to maybe have to have double sessions to distance the kids and only have half the kids in the school, and that means double bus routes,” she said. “They’re looking at this, going, ‘They just told us that all the tax revenue that funds our schools might be 20 to 30 percent lower. That we’re going to be laying off teachers and the school nurse and the counselor.’”
The cleaning and transportation costs involved in reopening schools are huge, according to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, said most districts are using guidelines issued by the CDC to shape their plans. He said his agency estimates that the average district will spend $1.8 million to bring students back this fall. Among the costs: The average school district will need to spend nearly $40,000 on disinfectant wipes for classrooms and $26,000 to deep-clean after a single confirmed case of COVID-19. The AASA also projects that aides will need to be hired to screen students as they board buses ($384,000), and buses will need to be outfitted with fog machines equipped to spray disinfectant, cleaner and hand sanitizer ($66,394).
Domenech said many districts have no clear plan for paying those costs. In many districts, the planning process is “at a standstill” as superintendents wait to see if they will receive additional federal funding to pay for pandemic safety measures.
Districts around the country are exploring creative solutions to open their doors safely, Domenech said. In Virginia, the governor has proposed that school spots be prioritized for children in third grade and below, since young children have a harder time learning by computer. Some superintendents are considering a yearlong calendar so that more students are able to get in-person time over a longer school year. Others are talking about having in-person school a couple of days a week and offering supervised space in a public library for children to learn remotely while their parents are at work. In Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., the district’s plan calls for students to go back to school virtually at first and transition to a rotating schedule, which will keep some students off campus until as late as the end of November.
“There are a lot of things that can be done, but it’s going to require funding; it’s going to require time,” Domenech said.
Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester, N.Y., Teachers Association, said his district will be forced to lay off more teachers if the federal money does not materialize. Urbanski said the district is among the poorest in New York state and recently went through a third round of teacher layoffs, which led to a 10 percent reduction in staff.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has projected 20 percent across-the-board cuts for public school funding in the state budget unless federal money becomes available, Urbanski said.
“When you combine that with the reality that in order to open schools safely you will need substantially more, not less, money for proper PPE, for proper sanitizing and disinfection, for lower class sizes, for social distancing, for additional health and social and emotional needs of students, you’re talking about a really dire situation,” he said.
Beasley, of Clayton County, Ga., said he is going to recommend that the district start the school year virtually. But he has asked parents to include masks in their school supply purchases because he anticipates returning in person at some point and hopes to not shoulder that cost. He said that recommending the all-virtual option to start the year was an obvious call “since the virus data is worsening in our state and our county and clearly across the nation.”
Beasley said he is worried about learning loss, particularly for low-income students whose parents may not be able to be at home to help with distance learning, but “we just don’t have the solution as long as this pandemic continues to be in a high-risk situation.”
In Dallas, Hinojosa said that as many as half his teachers are unsure if they will come back to teaching, given the state’s spiking infection rate and the requirement to teach in person. He said he is recommending pushing the first day of school past Labor Day, but the teachers’ union asked him to consider January 2021. Hinojosa said the latter is not an option unless he wants to risk state funding. He said he is now planning to spread students out across libraries and gyms in order to have space to house as many as possible five days a week. But he is worried about teachers’ morale.
“A lot of them feel uncomfortable being face to face with students,” Hinojosa said. “We have 10,000 teachers — typically we have to hire about a thousand a year. ... If a lot of them decided to retire, it would be a challenge.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
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