Educators fear that state governments have not provided the funding that schools need to reopen safely, an issue that puts the lives of both students and teachers at risk.
“We hear a lot of anxiety from [teachers and staff] because they’re not sure that the districts are truly prepared with the resources, with guidance, and with funding to make sure that all these safety measures are adequately put into place,” Florida Education Association Vice President Andrew Spar told the Washington Examiner.
Whether public schools will receive the funding necessary to implement social distancing protocols, improve cleaning and sanitation efforts, and more is “the million-dollar question, maybe literally,” Spar said.
Schools in Florida, South Carolina, and other Sun Belt states have been directed by governors to reopen schools on schedule without detailing plans to provide additional funding to outfit other facilities, including gymnasiums, cafeterias, and even school buses, to serve as additional classroom space.
“Classrooms are not designed for social distancing. They’re designed for kids to be working side by side and at tables with the teacher,” Spar said. “So, how do you make sure that students are social distancing? In most cases, that would mean fewer students in the classroom.”
Underinvestment in public schools, especially those in lower-income districts, is a long-standing problem that was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Schools in rural or poorer areas do not have additional funding on hand to spend on outfitting additional classroom space, installing hand sanitizing stations in school hallways, or providing personal protective equipment for students, teachers, and staff.
“We’re asking the General Assembly for two significant steps to be taken,” said Patrick Kelly, director of governmental affairs at the Palmetto State Teachers Association in South Carolina. “The first is to ensure that all districts are equitably funded, as it relates to the capacity to provide the resources and staffing that we know are necessary for safe operations of schools in the fall.”
The Palmetto State Teachers Association is lobbying the South Carolina state government to help schools add nurses to their staffs. Over 120 schools in South Carolina do not have full-time school nurses, who would be schools’ first responders in possible new coronavirus cases. Kelly added that all schools should have full-time counselors on staff as well.
“We would ideally like to see all schools with a social worker, potentially a psychologist, to address some of the trauma and mental health issues that we know students are experiencing as a result of this pandemic,” Kelly said.
Months of remote learning and isolation have negatively affected students’ mental health, according to June guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP wrote that “having students physically present in school” is paramount.
Members of the Trump administration, and President Trump himself, used AAP guidance to bolster the argument that schools must reopen on schedule in the fall, even while coronavirus cases continue to increase in southern and western states. Trump later threatened to withhold federal funding to schools that do not open fully. The AAP joined the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association to point out that public health, not politics, should drive decisions on when and how to reopen schools.
“Withholding funding from schools that do not open in-person full time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers,” the education associations wrote.
Educators and leadership across school districts hope to reopen in the fall for the sake of students’ mental health, but the paucity of proper resources to do so safely has strained their efforts to make reopening plans that will keep students and older staff safe from infection.
“We want our students to be back in in-person instruction for the exact same reason as the AAP,” Kelly said. “But we also know as educators that the physical well-being of students has to come first and foremost.”