Graphic via Denzel Boyd for COURIER
Graphic via Denzel Boyd for COURIER

A national strategy on reopening schools for in-person instruction and a call for more funding? Teachers and parents say yes, please.

After nearly a year without clear federal guidelines on how to reopen schools for in-person instruction safely, it’s clear this is a priority for President Joe Biden: On his first full day in office, he released details of his COVID-19 response plan, which includes getting kids back in the classroom, and used his executive power to direct the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide guidance on reopening.

According to the 200-page strategy document, the Biden administration aims to have a majority of K-8 schools reopen safely within his first 100 days in office. It’s an ambitious goal that many doubt can be met.

In addition to ramping up testing and speeding up vaccination distribution, Biden has called on Congress to allocate $130 billion in additional funding for K-12 schools. His plan would also allow schools to tap into emergency disaster funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation, upgraded technology, among other needs. 

Sorting Fact From Fiction: Sign Up for COURIER’s newsletter.

“With unity we can do great things, important things,” Biden said during his inauguration speech. “We can right wrongs, we can put people to work in good jobs, we can teach our children in safe schools.”

Since schools closed in March, the United States has seen a patchwork of school reopenings. Some have entered into a cycle of hybrid online and in-person learning, others maintain schooling entirely online, and still others have been forced into a rhythm of closing each time there is an outbreak. The absence of a national strategy has left many school districts without clear metrics to guide them in reopening safely. 

As a result, parents, students, and teachers have been forced to adapt on the fly, often relying on remote learning and sometimes unreliable Internet access. 

“I definitely think he misses school,” Monica Martinez-Canty told COURIER. Martinez-Canty, who lives in Augusta, Georgia, has three children ages five, two, and nine months. Were it not for the pandemic, her five-year-old son would be in a pre-kindergarten program. Instead,  Martinez-Canty has been working with him on her own at home to meet Georgia’s pre-K standards. “It’s interesting,” she said. “I thought it was going to be easier than it has been.” 

Martinez-Canty, who works as a local event planner, and her husband have had to adjust their work schedules in order to accommodate their son’s educational needs. But teaching a 5-year-old is challenging, she said, because he gets easily distracted and loses focus due to the home setting. And while she has the freedom to work from home, it’s often difficult to get much done, as she is attending to her children and has to deal with frequent interruptions. 

“I definitely think he misses school.”

“It’s a flexible work schedule, but even for my own sanity it’s good to have a [set] schedule I can rely on,” she said. 

Parents across the country have faced a similar juggling act, caught between working from home, entertaining or teaching their kids, and returning to work as offices reopen. 

Jason Allen, who teaches middle school-aged children in Atlanta, noted that even as teachers and students have worked to adapt to remote learning, the system “is not always perfect.” But the alternative, without PPE or suitable tactics to combat the spread of COVID-19, places educators and school staff at a high risk. 

“A lot of those educators have been exposed to the virus,” Allen told COURIER. “Several of them have lost loved ones because they are the only person in their household to have to go into a classroom. I’ve also had colleagues who have died from COVID-19; social workers, bus drivers have passed away and they are intricate parts of education and are truly first-line workers.”

Jason Allen (image courtesy of subject)

Allen isn’t the only one who is concerned either. Many teachers, backed by teachers’ unions, have said they refuse to go back to in-person instruction until the virus is under control or better safety measures have been put in place. 

More than 530 teachers died of COVID-19 last year, according to data compiled by the American Federation of Teachers, and shared with the Washington Post.

Under the previous administration, many were asked to return to the classroom without supplies like PPE, hand sanitizer, or cleaning supplies to keep themselves safe. Some teachers even resorted to creating their own makeshift barriers to reduce spread in their classrooms. 

Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union and a 40-year veteran in Washington, DC, schools, noted that some of her colleagues were asked to return to schools that simply did not have the proper infrastructure to reopen safely. For instance, many DC schools need updates to their ventilation systems, which public health experts say play a key role in rapid spread of the virus. 

Davis said that, in her view, getting teachers and students back to school relies in large part on funding. 

“I am so delighted that [Biden] is pushing funding to help reopen schools,” Davis said in an interview last week. “I was really concerned about our reopening plans because we’re reopening in just two weeks and we have teachers who would be called back for in-person teaching not having access to the vaccine and not having appropriate PPE at each school.” 

READ MORE: ‘The Gap Widens’: Black and Latino Parents on the Challenges of Pandemic Learning

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, many teachers took to social media to show their inadequate supplies. Some educators were given shower curtains to put around their desks, and others were allocated just one bottle of hand sanitizer for a whole class. Educators and students ran into further problems when it came to accessing the internet and educational devices like laptops.

That’s why Biden and many advocates are pushing for a return to in-person instruction, though with proper safety measures in place. Remote learning has proven disproportionately difficult for students of color and students in rural communities, where internet access is unreliable. This additional barrier has further widened the educational gap between student demographics. The same is true for students with disabilities, for whom remote learning is unsustainable or simply ineffective. 

“Funding needs to be available to fix the pre-existing problems in our school infrastructure,” Allen said. 

Biden has vowed to find the safest ways to reopen schools. 

“We can do it,” Biden pledged in a speech earlier this month, “If we give school districts, communities, and states the clear guidance they need as well as the resources they will need that they cannot afford right now because of the economic crisis we are in.”

READ MORE: These Are the Measures Needed to Reopen Schools, According to an Infectious-Disease Expert