BY L. EARL FRANKS — 06/11/20
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The coronavirus outbreak continues to send shockwaves through health and economic systems around the globe. No aspect of society has been spared, including our nation’s public education system. This spring, at least 124,000 K-12 schools closed, causing significant disruptions in learning for more than 55 million students. Principals are working to prepare their schools for reopening this fall, but significant federal support will be needed to ensure schools have sufficient resources, staffing, and testing to open safely. On behalf of elementary and middle school principals, I strongly urge Congress to provide a bold federal response in the next coronavirus relief package that matches the gravity of the moment and positions schools to confront this crisis head-on.
On March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law the CARES Act, a $2 trillion rescue package that included $30.75 billion for state education stabilization grants, around $13 billion of which will be allotted to K-12 education. The education funding provided in the CARES Act represented an initial emergency response to support schools this spring with the costs related to closures, such as increased staffing, remote learning, and student meal delivery. While a step in the right direction, given the magnitude of this crisis, the education funding provided in the CARES Act will be insufficient to address the enormous challenges schools will face this summer and fall.
Most districts will see precipitous declines in state and local aid as a slowing economy strains budgets. According to the Learning Policy Institute, a five percent decrease in state funding for education in fiscal 2020 and a 20 percent decrease in fiscal 2021, coupled with the impact of increased costs, would require $230 billion to stabilize state education budgets.
Robust education stabilization funds will be needed to stave off layoffs, bolster internet access for remote learning, expand school-based mental health services, and provide schools with the necessary resources to safely return to school in the fall. Congress must also include clear maintenance of effort and “supplement, not supplant” language to ensure the well-documented shell game that states used under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to backfill state cuts cannot be used with coronavirus response funding.
Beyond the severe impact on academic achievement, school closures are also causing trauma and increased mental health challenges for students. Being physically out of school for months upends students’ support systems and can create isolation, deepen anxiety, and make it difficult for school-based mental health professionals to reach students. Some children may be facing additional trauma due to food insecurity or from a parent losing a job.
Principals are uniquely positioned to leverage trauma-informed strategies to address the enormous wave of student social, emotional and mental health needs when schools reopen. But they cannot do it alone. Congress must ensure schools have ample resources to expand school-based mental health programs, provide trauma sensitivity in their schools, and train staff to better understand trauma’s impact on students and how they can help these students heal.
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For some students, the recent violence against black people and the resulting uprisings in cities across the country have caused additional trauma and grief. Principals, as a beacon of hope and inspiration for many community members, will play a central role in supporting these students. School leaders can lead change by increasing dialogue on issues such as race, racism, white privilege, inequality, and police violence; boosting culturally responsive teaching; and committing to expanding resources to fully support students experiencing trauma due to these events. Ensuring schools have the necessary funding to elevate this support and respond to these additional needs will be critical in the coming months.
As K-12 education systems face an uncertain path ahead, the past can provide a roadmap for the future: During times of deep economic turmoil, schools need robust resources to ensure students receive services to support their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs. Congress must play a critical role in ensuring our nation’s public schools have the necessary supports to serve their students during this time of turmoil. I have never been more proud to represent the nation’s elementary and middle school principals, who are hard at work to help their schools and communities overcome this moment of crisis and emerge even stronger.
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