Schools Can’t Reopen Safely Without A Lot More Money. Congress Is Running Out Of Time.

WASHINGTON ― In a matter of weeks, millions of children will head back to school in the middle of a pandemic, leaving millions more parents filled with anxiety about risking their child’s health ― not to mention school staff ― to get an education.

Public schools cannot safely reopen without a massive infusion of emergency funding from Congress, which is already dangerously late to this. Think of all the things a single school needs: Hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes for classrooms. No-touch thermometers. Regular deep cleanings, which means hiring more custodial staff. Ensuring that every school has at least one full-time nurse (25% of schools have no nurse at all). Someone on every school bus to screen kids’ temperatures before boarding. Gloves and masks for staff. Masks for students who don’t bring one from home. Resuming before- and after-school child care programs with new cleaning protocols.

That doesn’t even factor what schools need if they opt for holding classes even partially online. Every student will need to have high-speed internet, a working computer and associated materials. The American Federation of Teachers estimates the cost to provide this technology to the poorest 15% of the nation’s 51 million public school students would be roughly $3.8 billion.

So how much money does Congress need to pass? Different groups have different estimates. The American Federation of Teachers says public schools need an additional $116.5 billion for the 2020-2021 calendar year. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents public officials who run state departments of elementary and secondary education, puts the number between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion. An analysis by the Association of School Business Officials International and AASA/School Superintendents Association concluded that the average school district needs $1,778,139, or $486 per student. For larger districts, the costs would be much higher.

Nobody on Capitol Hill agrees on how much to give schools, either. The White House is proposing $70 billion for K-12 schools but only for schools that fully reopen and hold in-person classes. House Democrats passed a bill in May that included $100 billion for K-12 schools. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), not to be outdone by House Democrats, on Tuesday previewed a Republican bill that provides $105 billion for schools. He did not clarify whether that money would come with strings or if it was solely for K-12 schools.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has a plan that outdoes everyone. She introduced a $435 billion bill weeks ago aimed at preventing an education and child care crisis in the fall. At the heart of her bill is $175 billion for K-12 schools, $132 billion for higher education and $50 billion to ensure that child care facilities can stay open so parents can hold down their jobs.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has the most comprehensive plan on Capitol Hill to ensure that schools can open safely in the fall and that child care providers can stay employed. (Photo: Zach Gibson via Getty Images)
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has the most comprehensive plan on Capitol Hill to ensure that schools can open safely in the fall and that child care providers can stay employed. (Photo: Zach Gibson via Getty Images)

HuffPost recently talked to Murray, who is also the Assistant Senate Democratic Leader, about how she’s feeling about schools being ready to open in the fall, whether Congress will come through with enough funding in time and how working families are facing a completely unworkable situation without schools and child care safely up and running.

Here’s a transcript of our exchange, lightly edited for brevity.

Hi, senator. Thanks for taking this call. I know it’s a slow time right now and nothing’s happening in the world. My first question is, how are you feeling about this fall in terms of schools reopening?

Well, I will tell you, I am stressed. Because every parent I’m talking to is stressed. They are worried, “How am I going to do this? I am barely making it. My child care has gone away. It’s going to cost more. I’m trying to do my job and work at home and educate my kids.”

I don’t know how parents are making it work now, being at home working with kids around. It doesn’t seem doable.

That’s the problem. They’re not doing it. They are completely stressed out. When I hear Republicans say, “We’re just going to open our schools,” I mean, how does that make anybody feel better? We are in a pandemic. A daycare cannot operate like it did a year ago. They need to have [personal protective equipment]. They need to sanitize. They need to have the right kind of spacing available. And that is not free or cheap or easily available. For all of us who tried to buy Purell, you know, it’s not that easy.

These are the costs and challenges they’re trying to deal with, and at the same time, the number of people who are paying into daycare has dropped dramatically because people are staying home or they’ve lost their job or their businesses shut down. And [daycares] are all tuition-paid, so they don’t have the resources. We need to make sure that they’re there. Everybody talking about opening up businesses again and sending everybody back to work, you can’t do that and leave a child at home alone.

So we’ve got to invest in this and in K-12 seriously. The question isn’t whether or not they’re sitting in a seat in class. It’s how we’re going to educate them. We need to deal with equity issues. If people are learning online, whether they have the ability to be online ― all of those kinds of questions. If it is in school, it has to be done differently. You can’t put kids jammed into a room. You can’t sit them in a cafeteria. You can’t do the kinds of things you had to do before.

And that’s just the kids. The educators themselves need to have PPE. We need to sanitize the school building. They need to have different procedures for kids coming in. They can’t just jam them all on a bus, they jump off the bus, they run into class. This also costs additional funds. This should have been done two months ago so people could plan. I was on a school board many years ago. You don’t plan your budget in August.

So, to answer your first question, I am panicked and stressed that we are not dealing with this in a timely fashion. We’re going to be entering September and people are just going to lose it.

It feels like millions of kids are just going to head back to school without schools having the resources they need to keep people safe from COVID and potentially without child care being available. Why aren’t alarm bells going off?

Child care and education is always ― well, child care in particular, education in general ― has always been a silent problem that people don’t talk about, particularly members of Congress. It is what every single family I know is talking about. It is a giant issue and it has to be addressed.

I introduced my bill two weeks ago and finally I’m getting people asking me about it and understanding that this has a huge impact. I will tell you, parents usually aren’t whiners when they’re working. And the reason is they don’t want to say, “This is really hard for me,” because they think, well, I won’t keep my job if my employer thinks I’m having trouble here. So people don’t speak up enough about the issues they are addressing at home. That allows them to be at work without fear of their employers saying, “Oh, well, I can have somebody else here that can do the job.” We need to understand we’re all in this together. Everybody is stressing and we need to be loud about it and demand the kinds of resources we need to get this right. We’ve got to scream.

Have you been working with any Republicans on this?

I have not specifically on my bill.

Senate Republicans are pulling together their own plan that proposes significantly less money for schools than you do, and the White House is insisting on tying any aid to schools to a requirement that they fully reopen. Is that a negotiable point for you?

It makes me angry the way that it’s presented: “You will send your child to school or we’re going to take money away from you.” It’s like bullying people. People do not need to be bullied right now. They need the resources and the support and the policies to open safely. It isn’t a question of whether you want to or not. It’s a question of, can you do it in a way that we can educate our kids and keep them safe, as well as everybody involved in our education system.

Can you reassure parents and teachers that Congress will get schools the money they need and in time?

Well, I’m going to reassure parents that I’m going stand up and fight. I have been on this, all the way along. What I need is for parents to stand up and fight with me and to make their voices loud and clear, to let folks in Washington, D.C., know this has to be a priority. I encourage everybody to speak up and yell.

So … there’s no good answer to the question of whether you can reassure Americans that Congress will give schools what they need to reopen safely.

Again, we need public pressure here. It’s so unfair. Everybody is personally sitting in their house stressing about how they’re going to do their job and take care of their kids and be their teacher at the same time. To ask them to do one more thing and yell at Congress, it just feels overwhelming. But we really need people to speak up. We just do. 


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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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