As Congress Weighs Additional Funding, DeVos Suggests Schools That Stay Closed Don’t Need More Federal Relief

With more school districts sticking with remote learning this fall, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made it clear this week that keeping schools closed will impact negotiations over the next pandemic relief package.

In a call with faith-based school leaders Wednesday, she said that districts keeping their schools closed should not receive more funding and that instead “it should go to the parents. They should be able … to choose a faith-based option.”

Congress returns from a break Monday, and pressure will be on the Senate to take up the latest federal relief package — the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act — that the House passed in mid-May. But it’s becoming clear that the reopening debate will complicate efforts to secure more funding.

“There’s real tension around these decisions about opening while they are talking about more money,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University in Washington. “When you do online learning, you don’t do a lot of other things.”

Some district leaders have said teaching remotely actually costs more than doing it in person. That was certainly the case in the spring when they had to purchase and distribute devices, provide hotspots and quickly get teachers up to speed on virtual instruction. Many districts also had to cover hazard pay for staff members who continued to work in buildings.

“The costs were tremendous and had to be done without budgeting for them,” said Laura Preston, a legislative advocate with the Association of California School Administrators.

Going forward, the costliest options are likely to be hybrid models that have some students learning at home and others in school buildings — a plan that many officials at the state and local levels seem to favor. Costs can increase because districts must follow safety and screening protocols in the building while also cycling students through online instruction. Double shifts requiring additional bus routes would also add to the costs.

For example, the Milwaukee Public Schools estimates its hybrid plan at $90 million in additional expenses.

DeVos’s comments to faith-based leaders followed President Donald Trump’s tweets last week that he “may cut off funding” if schools stay closed. DeVos backed that up in an interview this week, saying that the “go-to should be that schools are opening and fully functional and operational.”

But more and more districts are rejecting the administration’s position due to rising infection rates.

“It’s really easy right now to be distracted by the politics of reopening,” said Wyoming state Superintendent Jillian Balow, the current president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “As state chiefs, we just have to keep doing what’s best for students.”

The administration has already hinted that it will seize upon the relief package to make a renewed push for its Education Freedom Scholarships plan, a tax-credit system similar to the Montana program recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

So far, DeVos’s plan hasn’t been well received in Congress, and Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, suggests that the secretary might be viewing the next relief package as “her last shot at getting anything in this administration on school choice.”

On the Wednesday call, DeVos also discussed her intention that K-12 districts share funds with private schools and suggested that those funds are available for health and safety procedures.

“You have friends in this administration, and we will continue to fight against bias and bigotry against people of faith,” she said.

Under current federal law, districts use Title I funds for low-income students to provide similar services to low-income students in private schools. DeVos’s plan, however, would have them share the funding in the March relief package — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act — with all students in a district’s geographic area who attend private schools. She reiterated her point on the call, saying that “all students were impacted and, therefore, all students need to have the benefits of these emergency funds.”

Education groups have argued that this broader interpretation, which would result in more money for private schools, violates the intent of federal law. Earlier this month, five states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit in federal court over the rule.

District and school leaders have until July 31 to submit comments on the plan. Even though the secretary’s latest version gave districts some choices, AASA said the rule gives the “illusion of choice as a cover for a flawed policy proposal.”

The current version of the HEROES Act includes language that would retroactively eliminate this broader interpretation of the “equitable services” rule from the earlier relief package passed in March.

Florida’s ‘ground zero’

The HEROES Act includes almost $60 billion for K-12 schools to cover a range of costs related to teaching, student services and school operations — but far less than the $158 billion to $244 billion that the state chiefs organization estimates is necessary “to reopen school buildings safely.”

“The reality across the board is we need a great deal of extra resources to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Steve Gallon III, vice chair of the Miami-Dade County Schools, said last week during a press conference. Calling Miami “ground zero” of Florida’s recent increase in coronavirus cases, he estimated the additional operational costs for the district at $65 million to $85 million for PPE and additional transportation and custodial staff members.

The bill also includes $875 billion in flexible funding for states, cities and counties. “When we have federal funding that benefits businesses, it also benefits our schools,” Balow said.

At the end of last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said that schools would be among his priorities for another stimulus deal but described the HEROES Act as the House Democrats’ unrealistic wish list.

“To step back towards normalcy, our country will need K-12 and college students to resume their schooling,” he said on the Senate floor, adding that schools also need legal protections because they are “putting their necks on the line to reopen.”

Preston in California said “immunity from liability” is also on the minds of superintendents, as well as flexible timelines for providing special education services. She expects future legal costs to climb with the “number of lawsuits piling up against districts” because special education students aren’t being provided all the services previously negotiated with families.

Expectations will also be much higher for districts’ distance learning plans, said Robin Lake, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, who has switched from closely tracking districts’ remote learning plans to examining their reopening proposals.

“People have given schools and districts and teachers a lot of grace, but I think the honeymoon is over,” she said. “Kids can’t afford to lose more time.”

For example, a parent advocacy group in Los Angeles, where the district announced it will begin the school year online, is petitioning for an average of three hours of live interaction with teachers specific to students’ grade levels, regular assessments and feedback on student work, and sufficient technology.

Districts are still considering the teachers’ concerns about reopening, and those choosing hybrid models haven’t necessarily nailed down specifics with their unions. In the Seattle Public Schools, for example, the Seattle Education Association hasn’t signed off on a plan. In Massachusetts, unions have called for a phased-in reopening plan over a six-week period. And Maryland unions, along with the state PTA, have called for a virtual start to the year.

“It’s not just the states versus the federal government,” Roza said. “It’s the states, the federal government and the unions.”

Slow handoff to the local level

Even as Congress weighs a new relief package, most districts are still waiting on distributions from the last one, which included the $13.2 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. A late June Government Accountability Office report showed that although 97 percent of those funds had been promised by the end of May, only 1 percent had reached districts.

Georgia, Iowa and Missouri were among the seven states that had already spent some funds, according to the report. The watchdog agency will provide an update at the end of August.

The other fund in the CARES Act is a flexible fund that governors can use for K-12 or higher education. A review of states’ applications shows that most plan to use the bulk of that $3 billion to shore up their distance learning systems — either for devices, internet access or statewide virtual learning platforms. States were expected to have reports in to the U.S. Department of Education by Friday detailing how they’ve used the money so far. According to the department, they had received 13 reports as of Monday.

While some of the delay in getting the funds to districts is likely due to the fact that states were still creating an application process for districts, Ng, with AASA, added that states are also temporarily using the funds to make up for losses in state revenue.

The department required that states promise to maintain what they were already spending on education in order to receive the stabilization funds. That was one reason Balow said Wyoming was the last to apply for federal aid. “That’s a really tough guarantee,” she said. ‘That’s a tough promise to make.”

States will be able to apply for a waiver from that rule if they experience sharp declines in revenue. “I think it will be a pretty significant issue for a lot of states as we see funding shortfalls,” she said.

Another ‘critical part’

For all of his insistence that schools reopen, President Trump has given little attention in recent months to the child care industry, which advocates and Democrats say is just as important to economic recovery.

The HEROES Act includes $7 billion for child care. But, with surveys showing many providers at risk of closing permanently, advocates have said the system needs $50 billion to rebuild. That’s the same figure in the Child Care Is Essential Act, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and other Democrats.

Last week, Sen. Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, and HELP Committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, introduced the Back to Work Child Care Grants Act, a program that would provide nine months of assistance to providers as they reopen. Funding would be determined as part of the appropriations process.

“Two-thirds of children in the U.S. under age 6 have parents in the workforce, and those parents can’t go to work if they don’t have someone to take care of their children safely during the day,” Alexander said in a statement.

But Murray wasn’t impressed.

“Frankly, it’s like they’re trying to put out a fire with an empty bucket,” she said in a statement.

The HEROES Act also includes $3 billion for child nutrition programs to help make up for the losses to school meal programs during school closures. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition personnel, has also called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide all students with free meals throughout the upcoming school year.

Specifically, the association is asking the agency to extend waivers that have allowed schools to operate their grab-and-go meal sites, to have flexibility over menu options and to distribute meals in more locations.

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