Austerity Will Make Reopening Harder—Part II

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Most schools—K-12 and higher education institutions—around the country have been shuttered since mid-March, creating an unprecedented interruption in learning for millions of students. The second installment of our three-part series examines the costs of safely reopening America’s schools and how austerity policies would hurt that process.

person holds sign that says solidarity against austerity iStock/Getty Images Plus/shauni

“Reopening public schools is key to reopening the economy,” AFT President Randi Weingarten says in her May 24 New York Times column. In communities around the country, parents and families rely on their neighborhood public schools for much more than education for their children. Reopening public schools safely, before a vaccine is available, however, will take caution and additional investments.

The safe reopening of schools will require greater investments to pay for measures to keep students and school staff safe, including: masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), smaller classes and more buses to make social distancing possible, enhanced custodial services to clean and disinfect buildings and buses, devices and internet connectivity to close the digital divide, and more school nurses to care for students. The cost for these added safety measures is substantial and necessary.

The Learning Policy Institute estimates a cost of $41 billion for schools to ensure access to devices and connectivity for distance learning, additional food services for students from low-income families, and expanded learning time to deal with learning loss caused by school closures. When you add cleaning, transportation and health services, the cost of reopening will rise even further.

“We have to recognize that schools—from elementary through high school—have a secondary function and service that they provide to families: childcare,” says Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers. “Schools and teachers are not babysitters, but we do care for kids, as well as educate them.”

Freitas warns that reopening schools safely will require additional resources to allow for social distancing and thorough cleaning and disinfecting. Unfortunately, many school districts around the country are facing steep budget cuts.

California, the most populous state in the country, has a public school system that serves 6.2 million students. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect state revenue, the governor has proposed public education budget cuts around $14 billion, Freitas says. “With that level of funding, we can’t reopen safely,” he adds. “We just can’t do more with less.”

In a May 20 letter to state policymakers, a coalition of nine statewide K-12 education associations—including CTA—warned that the safe reopening of schools in the fall while facing COVID-19 challenges will require smaller classroom sizes to comply with social distancing requirements, as well as enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices. All of those efforts, the letter states, will require additional staff and increased costs.

“This isn’t just some sort of economic decline like we saw in the Great Recession,” Freitas continues. “This is from a virus that can spread very quickly in environments like schools.

“If we can’t do this safely, we should not reopen at all. The proposed cuts won’t simply mean a shortage of funds for educational programs,” Freitas continues. “It means we won’t have enough money to purposefully distance with smaller class sizes, and for cleaning and PPE.”

Freitas says the state’s higher education institutions face the same dilemma when it comes to concerns about reopening safely. The California State University and the California Community College System—two of the state’s three public higher education systems—both have recommended moving to online instruction this fall.

In Wisconsin, the state’s university system has proposed furloughs for all employees, and some deans and chancellors have said they will take pay cuts, says AFT-Wisconsin President Kim Kohlhaas.

“There have been proposals to completely strip the system with massive cuts, massive layoffs and a reliance on online instruction,” Kohlhaas says, noting that cuts to higher public education started when former Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011, the same year the Legislature swung to a Republican majority.

According to AFT-Wisconsin, state lawmakers have reduced higher education funding by 10 percent since 2011, and the current budget approved by lawmakers failed to include any new significant resources for the state’s colleges and universities.

“They’re using the current health crisis as an excuse to ‘reform’ the whole system, shift to online instruction and eliminate programs, particularly in the liberal arts,” Kohlhaas says. She is concerned that the proposed reforms may open the door to privatization schemes.

Like many school systems—both K-12 and higher education—the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz County, Calif., faces inevitable cuts. But the local union may have an opportunity to lessen the impact on students, teachers and school employees, says Nelly Vaquera-Boggs, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers.

“The district invited us into meetings to start having this difficult conversation,” Vaquera-Boggs says. “We’ve just started talking with the school district about ideas for potential areas to make reductions, and we’re really hoping to not impact the classroom.”

Even before the current health crisis, Vaquera-Boggs says, the school district had reduced the number of certificated non-management staff. Now, the union is working with the district to avoid teacher layoffs over the summer.

“It’s really difficult to see people laid off—especially in this economy—and it’s even more difficult to see how it impacts students,” Vaquera-Boggs says. She echoed concerns about the challenges of reopening schools in the fall in a way that is safe for students and school staff, and says layoffs will make that even more difficult.

“In our community, many of our families are essential workers who have to go to work,” Vaquera-Boggs says. “They need to be able to send their kids to a safe school. So many of our families need their neighborhood schools to be available.”

The path forward must be paved with greater investments.

A report released by the Albert Shanker Institute in April says coronavirus could create an unprecedented school funding crisis that would affect a generation of children. However, the report does present a path forward that includes a call for increased federal funding to address the immediate effects of the pandemic on school budgets. The report, specifically, rejects fiscal austerity as a response to state budget shortfalls.

It calls for large federal investments to stabilize K-12 public education and address the short-term effects of the pandemic, which would include a multiphase and equitable distribution of federal funding. For longer-term recovery, the report urges states to take action to restore and improve their efforts to build revenue and strengthen their reserve funds.

The report states: “We cannot avoid a budget crisis, but we can attenuate its negative effects and shorten its duration. The alternative is to once again suffer funding cuts that threaten the quality of public schooling and equal educational opportunity over a period of many years.”

“In regard to education, the road to recovery will be long,” Vaquera-Boggs says. “I just hope our legislators and our government don’t expect children to bear the burden of growing the economy. As educators, we will continue to advocate for the emotional health of our students and for the services they need.”

[Angela Callahan]