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Public school uncertainties

Administrators, teachers, parents, and students dash into a new school year with more questions than answers

Public school uncertainties

A janitorial worker in Orlando, Fla., uses an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer to deep clean at Wetherbee Elementary School. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Michigan education administrators by mid-­August usually are well prepared for public school openings right after Labor Day. Not this year.

Mike Burde, veteran assistant superintendent for western Michigan’s Kenowa Hills Public Schools, says in a two-week period he and his associates moved from planning a mix of school and home learning, to all classroom with strict social distancing, to all online: “It’s planning in the arena of the unknowns.”

School years are often marathons. This year is like a marathon with high hurdles every 100 yards. One hurdle is funding. To open their doors in a COVID-19 world, public school districts need to outfit teachers and staff with personal protective equipment (PPE), acquire additional cleaning supplies and equipment, and even retrofit some physical structures to accommodate social distancing. 

All told, an average-sized district like Kenowa Hills could spend an additional $490 per student—upward of $1.5 million annually—on coronavirus control measures, according to a report by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials. 

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, says schools could use even more than the AASA estimate—about $2,300 per student in additional funding. That figure includes tens of billions of dollars in remedial support for students coming off a patchy spring semester, an unfortunate side effect of so many hastily assembled distance learning plans that left thousands of students with learning gaps.

The two estimates vary widely, but both groups recommend billions in additional federal money for schools to implement pandemic protocols. Even the moderately conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) says the government should provide more funding:

“Given that school systems cannot reasonably have been expected to plan for the current situation, state and federal officials must help provide the resources schools need to help weather the crisis.”

Schools have already spent billions of dollars appropriated within the $2.2 trillion March CARES Act. Districts jumped at the opportunity to stock up on PPE and upgrade cleaning equipment, ordering pricey electrostatic sprayers so they could streamline building disinfection protocols come fall. Demand has been so high for items like the sprayers that suppliers are struggling to fulfill orders in time for the first day of classes. 

A second hurdle is lack of flexibility. A common complaint critics lob at the nation’s public schools is that their sheer size and rigid governmental accountability foster an unyielding one-size-fits-all approach. Smaller schools fare much better on this account, but larger ones struggle to develop protocols at a scale that treats students as individuals with highly personalized academic needs.

This is one area where state governments could help schools without spending any extra money, says the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank in Michigan: “Some of the rules and regulations and state laws are kind of antiquated, like how we count attendance and hours. Now is the time to let those things go and focus on giving more freedom for educators to help students meet their learning objectives.” 

All states require some sort of pupil accounting procedure from public schools. In Michigan, for example, schools must meet a 75 percent attendance threshold every day or risk losing millions in state funding. That’s a hurdle for administrators who want to keep class sizes low and buildings less crowded. To beat the 75 percent rule, Burde says Kenowa Hills plans to file paperwork designating all 3,100 of its learners “virtual students” for the upcoming year.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing for as much in-person instruction as possible, warning that the Department of Education could hinge the availability of federal funds on whether schools open for in-person instruction this fall. Even though federal dollars represent a small portion of most school budgets, that could put a squeeze on districts like Los Angeles that already announced online-only plans. 

But none of this will matter much if students don’t show up or if teachers decide they’d rather do just about anything other than gear up to face COVID-19 classroom risks. Separate summer surveys showed only 21 percent of teachers were comfortable returning to schools for in-person instruction. One out of 4 classroom teachers is 50 or older and risks having severe COVID-19 symptoms. Others have vulnerable family members.

Many school districts in early August were still hedging their bets, but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in mid-July that the Big Apple’s more than 1 million public school students will return to physical classrooms only part time and spend much of the week (in theory) online. How will that work out when parents work outside their homes or—even if present—don’t diligently police their children? 

Leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, declared that 600,000-plus students would begin the new school year fully online. Period. San Diego followed, and within short order the entire state of California seemed poised for a statewide mandate of virtual instruction only this fall.

It’s no surprise that many parents who can opt out are doing so. That should work out satisfactorily for affluent families with parents who can work out of their homes and join other families in creating pods with tutors. But poor children, often already behind, will probably fall further behind unless volunteers from churches and other organizations step up.

­—Laura Edghill is a World Journalism Institute mid-career graduate

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.