Congress Convenes Sectors on School Reopenings

August 06, 2020 | Jeffrey Ekoma

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, increased attention has been given to how schools, colleges, and universities can safely reopen for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year. To note, many schools and institutions closed in March and April of 2020 to reduce exposure of the virus among students, teachers, and related personnel, and there has been discourse at all levels of government about the feasibility of in-person academic instruction this Fall. At the center of these discussions have been state, local, and territorial health officials, who are providing their expertise through constant communication and consultation with education officials.

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released guidance to support collaboration between education systems, public health agencies, local leadership, and pediatricians to create evidence-backed policies for school re-entry. AAP asserts that schools are essential for child and adolescent development, and that the lack of in-school instruction has impacted their social and emotional skills, safety, nutritional intake, therapy access, and physical activity opportunities. In addition to offering school re-entry strategies, they advocate that all policy considerations for the upcoming academic year be developed under the assumption that students will be physically present in schools.

To better understand challenges and opportunities associated with reopening schools, Congress held six hearings that either directly or indirectly examined this issue. These hearings included expert testimony from HHS, CDC, NIH, FDA, AAP, and education officials from public and private institutions. A list of the hearings can be viewed at the bottom of this column below.*

Recurring themes highlighted included the role of CDC’s guidance on reopening schools, additional funding needed by schools to fully reopen—including funding to support online learning and procurement of supplies to maintain clean facilities and social distancing—and in-person vs. online school instruction. Similar themes emerged from discussions specific to institutions of higher education. CDC director Robert Redfield, who was a frequent witness at the congressional hearings, repeatedly emphasized evidence to support children being in school, considering that the virus is less likely to produce severe symptoms in that population. This issue became the core disagreement between the Administration and education officials, some of whom were concerned about the lack of definitive evidence to support students being in school. Additionally, Redfield’s remarks frequently noted harms associated with extended school closures for children and reiterated his view that reopening schools is in the public health interest.

Higher education officials presented reopening strategies that protect vulnerable populations while granting students and professors the flexibility to decide whether to participate in virtual, in-person, or hybrid instruction. Furthermore, higher education institutions are concerned about students needing additional financial aid as the pandemic impacts parental employment. The need for liability protections to protect institutions from frivolous litigation was also stressed. With respect to K-12 schools, topics such as teacher safety, telecommunication infrastructure, and access disparities for remote instruction were top concerns among parents and officials. Federal public health officials and education officials were largely aligned on the importance of testing and maintaining public health strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19. There was agreement that strategies for reopening would be different across school districts and states due to varying virus prevalence across communities.

There is also strong concern that state education budgets, in addition to public health budgets, will be severely impacted as a result of cuts states must make to balance annual budgets. Advocates for school reopening have stressed the needed for additional financial resources for state budgets, and more specifically, education budgets.

In May 2020, the House of Representatives approved the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which represented a starting point for discussions related to the next COVID-19 emergency funding supplemental package. The bill allocated $100 billion for education provisions, including $90 billion to support elementary, middle, and high schools, and over $10 billion for colleges and universities. Recently, negotiations began in the Senate with the introduction of the Senate Republican-drafted Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act. Included in that package was $105 billion for education-related matters—specifically $70 billion for elementary, middle, and high schools and $29 billion for colleges. As negotiations between the Senate, House of Representatives, and Administration continue, areas of disagreement include availability of funding for private institutions, funding to address state budget shortfalls, and incentives for teachers and schools that open for in-person instruction. An agreement on an emergency supplemental package is expected to be reached this month.

As deliberations progress on how schools can safely reopen, many school districts and higher education institutions have made decisions to either have hybrid (both in-person and virtual) instruction, while others have specified a time period—in some instances the entire academic year—for virtual learning. Key to these discussions are state, local, and territorial health officials, who have advised education officials on the choices before them. As noted by Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association and former Maryland state health official, it’s critically important that education reopening plans are created in concert with state and local health agencies. ASTHO will continue to monitor developments in this area over the coming weeks and months.

*Congressional hearings on school reopenings: