Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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In Our View: Federal funds, local plans to safely open school

The Columbian

Safely reopening schools in the fall is going to require more than dictates or wishful thinking from the federal government. Congress and President Trump must invest in the health and education of students, filling in funding gaps created by the coronavirus pandemic.

There are, indeed, good reasons to push for schools to open in less than two months. Remote learning is an adequate stopgap, but it is inadequate in the long run for the full educational and social development of students.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote last week: “Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. . . . Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being.”

Leaders at both the state and federal level recognize this, and President Trump has emphasized the issue this week. “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” he wrote on Twitter on Monday; on Tuesday he said, “We want our schools open.”

It is difficult to find anybody who disagrees. Students who miss their friends and parents who are eager to get back to work share a desire to see brick-and-mortar schools open. But wanting something requires action to make it happen.

Adjusting to the pandemic is going to be expensive for schools. Reduced class sizes will be necessary to facilitate social distancing, perhaps requiring the hiring of additional teachers and staff; increased sanitation measures will be costly; and the prospect of mixing in-class learning with online programs will require that curriculums be transformed.

All of that lands on top of strained state budgets and requires assistance from the federal level. Congress has appropriated $13.5 billion to help K-12 programs implement changes, and education groups have asked for at least $200 billion in federal funding to safely reopen buildings. The Republican-controlled Senate thus far has declined to take up a House-passed bill that would provide billions more in funding.

Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, last month released the findings from a task force designed to study the reopening of schools in Washington. After that, it is up to individual districts to formulate plans that best meet their needs and can react to changes in the virus within their communities.

“The very best thing we can do is get back to schools,” Reykdal said. “It’s not a modified schedule, it’s not an alternative to face-to-face learning. We’re telling you today . . . we built a policy framework that will allow our schools to open across the state. . . . We have to do our part. We have to wear masks. We have to maintain social distancing.”

On top of that, large-scale testing for the virus will be essential. Frequently testing students, teachers and staff will allow for positive cases to be quickly identified and isolated, and the need is exemplified by Israel. There, schools were reopened in May, and within two weeks dozens had shut down because of outbreaks — including one school where 130 coronavirus cases were identified.

Guidance and funding from the federal level, followed by well-conceived plans from the state and from local districts, are necessary for allowing schools to open while keeping our children, teachers and communities safe. And time is running out.