The head of the U.S. Senate education committee says that in addition to providing new funding to help all schools reopen safely in the fall, states should get federal relief to support them resuming face-to-face instruction.
The Tuesday comments from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are a signal that, as school districts wrestle with complex questions about how to start the new academic year, the specific challenge of how to reopen buildings is resonating on Capitol Hill.
"Congress should provide new federal funding to help all public and private schools and colleges open safely this Fall," Alexander said in the statement. "We should also give states new funding to distribute to those schools and colleges that incur additional expenses because of meaningful plans to open safely with students physically present in classrooms."
He also highlighted a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics that "all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school." The group's recommendations with respect to school reopenings, released late last month, have been under the spotlight recently, and the academy recently issued a follow-up statement along with several education groups urging caution on school reopenings.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would begin releasing details of a virus aid package—including new money for schools—as soon as next week.
Last week, President Donald Trump and other White House officials used multiple public events last week to pressure if not demand that schools hold in-person instruction in the fall. While Trump threatened to cut off funding—an ultimatum that doesn't have clear teeth behind it—Vice President Mike Pence suggested that additional virus relief for schools could be conditioned on having school buildings reopen.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has also said that schools should be planning to resume full and normal operations in the 2020-21 academic year. Although she stressed that educators have an obligation to do so, she's given little direction or clarity to school leaders as to how they should go about this, and she also downplayed the usefulness of school reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also said that federal education aid should be provided directly to families if their school buildings don't reopen.
Pressure has been growing for weeks for Congress to provide schools with emergency relief. Last month, Alexander released his estimate that K-12 schools and colleges and universities combined would need between $50 billion to $75 billion to reopen safely. That figure covered health supplies and other protocols, but did not include larger budgetary concerns for schools like retaining staff.
It's also far short of many demands other lawmakers and outside lobbyists have made for federal aid. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate education committee, wants at least $200 billion in congressional spending for schools in any new relief package. However, a relief bill passed by the House in May includes $58 billion in direct aid for schools.
Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R- Tenn., speaks during a Senate education committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 30, 2020. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)
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