Senate Panel Asks: When Can K-12 Schools Safely Reopen?

Jun 10, 2020
Originally published on June 10, 2020 6:25 pm

Safely reopening the nation's public schools will be an expensive and Herculean task without additional help from the federal government. And, until schools do reopen, the nation's most vulnerable children will continue to be hardest hit — losing consistent access to meals, valuable learning time, and vital social-emotional support. Those were just some of the takeaways Wednesday from a hearing of the U.S. Senate's education committee.

A handful of school leaders and a former U.S. secretary of education told senators that many districts will struggle to put in place recommendations for protecting students from COVID-19. Those include providing masks, gloves and sanitizer, hiring cleaning staff and nurses, conducting testing and contact tracing, as well as planning for socially distant classrooms. One big challenge is that these efforts are happening as states slash education budgets.

"I am concerned that the economic impact of the pandemic will result in necessary and sustained cuts in PK-12 education funding, perhaps to exceed 20% in Nebraska," said Matthew Blomstedt, that state's Commissioner of Education.

The high cost to reopen schools was thrown into sharp relief by a recent analysis from the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International. According to the report, the average district would incur nearly $1.8 million in additional expenses, with the bulk of the spending going toward hiring additional custodial staff, nurses and aides to take students' temperatures before they board school buses.

In many places, budget cuts — and this pandemic — are hitting schools that serve many low-income families the hardest. These districts often depend more on state dollars than their wealthier neighbors, who may rely more heavily on local property tax revenue, and have struggled to provide students with tools necessary to learn remotely, including digital devices and access to Wi-fi.

In fact, much of the hearing focused not on the specific safety challenges of reopening school but on the continued logistical and financial challenges of educating students remotely — especially already vulnerable students.

Districts need "access to devices, access to broadband, access to professional development for educators," said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee's education commissioner. "Our own governor often references not having internet on his farm. And that's a reality that's all too true for many of our students and their teachers."

This may reveal school leaders' embrace of a hard truth that many parents and policymakers don't want to hear: Many children won't be returning to school full-time in the fall.

Susana Cordova, the superintendent of Denver's public schools, said Denver students will likely see a mix of remote and in-person learning. While all students will do at least 40% of their learning in-person, Cordova said, vulnerable students will receive additional in-person instruction.

Whether schools are able to open physically in the fall, the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa, said "we have to address the ways this virus has further exacerbated inequities that have long existed within our education system ... we have to do better. Because if we don't, the achievement gap—that we strive to close—will undoubtedly widen. We can't let that happen."

And John B. King, Jr., a former education secretary under President Barack Obama, made clear that the ongoing protests over police violence should compel school leaders and policymakers to think even harder about what more they can do to support their students of color.

"The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have once again sent the message to black students that their lives are devalued," King said. "As schools reopen, our nation's students of color and their families also find themselves enduring a pandemic that disproportionately impacts their health and safety, mired in an economic crisis that disproportionately affects their financial well-being, and living in a country that too often still struggles to recognize their humanity."

The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, himself a former U.S. Secretary of Education, made clear he believed Congress had already done a great deal, through the CARES Act, to help schools, but he did leave open the possibility of doing more.

Alexander closed the hearing by asking the panelists for details — specifically, a price tag — "about exactly what it would take, in terms of financial support, to open our schools safely."

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When can America's schools safely reopen? That is a question on my mind, on the minds of millions of parents, caregivers, not to mention on the minds of kids right now. It was also the subject of a congressional hearing today before the Senate's education committee. Well, NPR's Cory Turner was listening in. He joins me now with, I hope, maybe (laughter) an answer or two to that burning question.

Cory, hey there.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: A few answers, though I think it goes without saying that they are all complicated.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's start with the safety recommendations that schools are trying to figure out and navigate right now. What is it going to take to reopen in the fall?

TURNER: Sure. They'll need to work with state and local leaders, I think, first and foremost, to make sure that they have testing in place as well as contact tracing. They're going to need to hire extra nurses, also custodial staff to keep K-12 classrooms clean. There's also been talk of schools hiring aides to take kids' temperatures before they get on school buses. And then there are, of course, the supplies - the masks, the sanitizer, thermometers. It is a very long list.

KELLY: Yeah, it does sound like the back-to-school supply list just got a lot longer. Do we have any idea how much this is all going to cost, and can school districts afford it all?

TURNER: We do, actually. One recent analysis estimated that for the average sized district, these extra costs could add up to about $1.8 million per district. But the one thing, Mary Louise, that we really have to keep in mind here is that these extra costs are coming at the same time as states are having to slash their education spending because of the recession and...

KELLY: Exactly.

TURNER: ...The recent shutdown. So, you know, several experts told senators today in this hearing, schools are going to need extra federal funding.

KELLY: So what does all this mean in terms of whether students are actually likely to go back to school come fall?

TURNER: I think it means in many places that they won't, at least not full-time. Kids will likely, again in many places, divide their time between in-person learning at school and remote learning continuing at home. One of the panelists today was Susana Cordova, the head of Denver's public schools. Here's what she said.

SUSANA CORDOVA: We've shared three draft options that offer a mix of in-person and remote learning with all students having a minimum of 40% in-person learning.

TURNER: So a minimum of 40% in-person learning. She also said, though, that vulnerable students would receive a full extra day of in-person instruction each week. And then Nebraska's education commissioner said that infection rates in a given district are going to play a big role in determining, again, whether or not schools stay online or can resume in person.

KELLY: And the thing about remote learning is it was cobbled together on the fly so quickly. If it is likely that a lot of districts are going to have to keep doing at least some remote learning, was there talk today of how to make it better, of improving it?

TURNER: This was a huge subject today, Mary Louise. In fact, it kind of overshadowed the talk of the COVID safety precautions. And it was all kind of framed by these ongoing protests over police violence against black Americans. Several lawmakers and experts highlighted recent research that suggests students of color have suffered incredible learning losses that are just going to compound disparities that were already pervasive in our education system. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota noted that the difference in academic achievement between black and white students in her state was already unacceptably large. And she said we have a moral responsibility to not look away from this. So a lot of work left to be done, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That is NPR's Cory Turner.

Thank you, Cory.

TURNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.