Schools need billions more to open safely, union and PTA leaders say

NEA and PTA leaders urge Congress to pass HEROES Act with $100B for education
By: | May 14, 2020
( & Deni McIntyre)

Schools need billions of dollars in resources—including infusions of added staff and safety equipment—to reopen in the fall, at a time when many states and local governments are bracing for drastic budget cuts, a group of parent and teacher advocates said Thursday.

In a video press conference, leaders of the National Education Association and the National PTA also criticized government officials, including President Donald Trump, who, they say, are pressuring schools to open too quickly without assurances from the medical community that students and staff can return to classrooms safely. 

“You cannot open up the economy until you can open up schools, and we will not open up schools until we can do it safely,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. “As a teacher, I can buy kids arts supplies but I can’t buy coronavirus tests.”

García, along with National PTA President Leslie Boggs, urged Congress to pass the HEROES Act stimulus bill, which would provide $915 billion in relief to state and local governments.

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The package earmarks $100 billion for K-12 and higher education and $1.5 billion in funding to connect all students to the internet.

“We’re desperate to go back to school,” Garcia said. “We want to go back to our work in serving our students, but that’s only going to happen when we can go back safely.”

[VIDEO: The National Education Association has launched an ad campaign to build support for public schools’ response to coronavirus and the ability to reopen safely.]

The billions in funds are needed for schools to buy personal protective equipment for teachers, staff, bus drivers and maintenance workers who will need to clean schools more often and rigorously, Lara Center, a Denver-area school union leader and paraprofessional, said during the videoconference.

District leaders will likely have to hire more custodians to sanitize schools multiple times per day if students are attending schools in shifts in the fall, Center said.

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Schools will also need social workers and other support staff to help students who have suffered emotional trauma during closures. And more nurses and other health care workers will be required to take temperatures of students and staff, to test for coronavirus, and to respond if anyone falls ill.

In fact, some teachers might be hesitant to return to work without adequate paraprofessionals and other aides, Center suggested.

“We’re hearing from public health experts that children may be covert carriers of the virus, and attending school may result in a resurgence of the virus in a community,” Center says. “However, not returning to school is equally concerning. School is a social-emotional anchor for many high-needs kids who are living in poverty or worse. Many of these students feel safe and more inspired at school than they do at home.”

School spending going in reverse?

As for transportation, more vehicles, drivers and monitors will likely be needed to maintain social distancing on buses that would only be able to carry a half to a third of the normal amount of students, said Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, a fifth-grade teacher in Maine’s Scarborough Public Schools.

“I literally cannot put even 12 kids in my classroom six feet apart; I physically can’t do it,” Ash-Cuthbert said during the videoconference.

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She compared a teacher’s job in keeping students safe during the coronavirus outbreak to their role in protecting students from an active shooter.

But she fears schools will have to cut staff—from teachers to custodians to nurses—just at the time when more personnel is needed to make buildings safe and provide extra academic support to students who have fallen behind, she said.

Town officials have asked her district’s leaders to cut $3 million to $5 million in school spending. “It’s like our budget is working in reverse of what we’re being told is best medically,” Ash-Cuthbert said.

Parents express support for teachers

The NEA also released a poll Thursday that shows nearly 90% of parents support how their children’s teachers and principals have performed during school closures.

“We’ve never seen a poll like this,” García said. “We’ve never felt the support from parents as strongly as we feel it now.”

However, another NEA poll shows teachers feeling frustrated with their ability to provide adequate instruction online. These concerns were higher among teachers in schools with greater numbers of students on free- and reduced-price lunch.

Those teachers have also reported lower attendance.

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