advertisement
advertisement

Want schools to reopen? Education needs an epic bailout

To safely reopen classrooms and allow parents to return to work, we’ll need money. Lots of it. Think of it as a correction for decades of underinvestment.

Want schools to reopen? Education needs an epic bailout
[Photo: iStock]

Full disclosure: I put my kids in front of the TV so I could write this op-ed. That’s life during quarantine. My kids miss school, and I miss having more than 10 minutes to string together a thought. Parents are losing their marbles as our kids max out on screen time and struggle without structure. So believe me when I say there is nothing I want more than to send my two kids back to our beloved local elementary school this August.  

advertisement
advertisement

So why do I feel dread rather than delight when I hear that Trump is pressuring schools to reopen, threatening to pull funding from schools that stay closed? Because I know that magical thinking won’t bring schools back this fall. If schools can’t reopen safely, parents and teachers will stay home. And a rushed reopening could set us all farther back, sparking new virus outbreaks and keeping schools closed even longer.

What do schools need for a safe reopening? It’s pretty simple. Money. Lots of it. If we want schools to reopen, we’ll need new funding to equip staff and teachers with PPE, sanitize classrooms, allow temperature checks, testing, and contact tracing, and improve airflow and ventilation in antiquated school buildings. Most of all, we need something that teachers have been begging for, even before the pandemic: smaller class sizes.

The airline industry got a whopping $50 billion of [stimulus money], more than triple the $13 billion set aside for K-12 schools.”

This spring, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion bailout bill to offset the damage from the pandemic, with funds mostly earmarked for private businesses (and disbursed with minimal oversight). The airline industry got a whopping $50 billion of that total, more than triple the $13 billion set aside for K-12 schools, and greater than the total $31 billion set aside for the entire education system, including not just public schools but also colleges and universities. (Even that $13 billion is not guaranteed to public K-12 schools. Several states are suing education secretary Betsy DeVos to try to prevent some of that relief money from being funneled to private and religious institutions.) 

Compare that to the $115 billion that schools received in the wake of the last major recession a decade ago, as part of a much smaller $800 billion stimulus package. Schools have become an afterthought in our pandemic response. Without set-aside federal funding, and with state tax revenues in free-fall, school budgets around the country have been cut, meaning that schools are laying off teachers and reducing staff—exactly the opposite of the big-picture response we need.

Last January, my kids’ elementary school shut down for over a week when their teachers went on strike. One of their biggest demands? Smaller class sizes. Our neighborhood public school is part of Los Angeles Unified, one of the largest districts in the country. Schools here have been desperately underfunded since property taxes were capped in the ’70s, and class sizes have ballooned to 30, 40, even 50 kids per class. 

But a smaller class size isn’t just an educational imperative. A safe reopening means students can’t be crammed into classrooms. How do we go from overstuffed classes to smaller pods of, say, 15 kids per teacher? For one, we need to hire more teachers and teachers’ aides. A larger cadre of qualified teachers and substitutes could allow schools to try some of the innovative solutions on the table, like time-shifted or staggered schedules.

advertisement

We can put recent college graduates to work running after-school programs or leading pods as teachers’ aides. Economist Emily Oster has suggested a “camp counselor”-type model in which kids could stay in their pods as they move from the classroom to the playground to engage in socially distant recreation or online lessons. Keeping kids in their pods after school is safer than many of the proposed models on the table, in which kids only spend part of the day or the week in class and then scatter to other ad-hoc childcare arrangements that multiply risk for everyone. 

Going from maxed-out classes to much smaller pods creates not just a personnel but a space challenge. Many school buildings are cramped and poorly ventilated. The pandemic could prompt us to reimagine school design and modernize classrooms with better airflow, including outdoor instructional spaces like gardens. Again, creative solutions are needed.

Since young children may benefit the most from in-person instruction and many universities will be remote this year, could elementary schools expand into empty high school or college classrooms? Or into the offices and public buildings that have been left empty as workers telecommute? Could a few classroom pods take over a WeWork? It may sound nutty, but in Denmark, children attended outdoor class in graveyards, and schools in Belgium set up classrooms within churches.

Safe reopening also demands adequate support staff. We’ll need nurses in every school to oversee temperature checks and monitor symptoms. Given the stress of the pandemic, kids need mental health support more than ever. All of this takes funding, given that school-based nurses, counselors, and psychologists were in short supply even before the pandemic.

I haven’t even mentioned daycares and preschools, many of which have been teetering on the financial precipice before coronavirus and are now reeling from the effects of the pandemic. In sum, if we want to get parents back to work and children back to class, we need to correct for decades of underinvestment in children. We need an education and childcare stimulus package of historic proportions. 

Why do schools and childcare need to be our top national funding priority? Two reasons: parents and children. First, working parents comprise a major chunk of the workforce. You can’t reopen businesses and expect parents of young kids to show up to work without childcare. Parents can’t just leave their kids at home. Instead, parents, especially women, will simply drop out of the workforce—a devastating loss for the economy. As Deb Perelman wrote in the New York Times, a generation of working parents is getting “ground up in the gears” as work and family collide. 

advertisement

Children have the right to an education. And education propels our future growth.”

The second reason might be even more important: the long term well-being of our kids and the value of their future contributions to our economy. Children have the right to an education. And education propels our future growth. Population-level educational attainment and literacy rates strongly correlate with national GDP. Countries with more educated citizens are more prosperous. One study modeling economic growth across multiple countries estimated that “human capital” productivity increases by around 10% for each year of schooling that citizens acquire. Examined through that lens, a year of lost school is profoundly expensive.

Times of crisis can bring about both risk and opportunity. There’s a real risk that the pandemic can decimate an already-stretched public education system. If schools reopen too quickly and without adequate planning and funding, the most privileged parents will keep children at home, further draining the public school system and shifting resources to private, for-profit schools. That’s Betsy DeVos’s dream, but a nightmare for the millions of kids and parents who depend on public schools.

Strong schools boost the health and well-being of the population in both the near- and long-term. We have the chance to do something really ambitious here, a once-in-a-generation moonshot or Marshall Plan to make public schools better and more resilient to future crises. Yes, the economy is hurting, but billionaires have gotten richer during the pandemic, and it’s past time for a tax system that demands the wealthiest Americans step up to contribute to the public good. If we can’t get it together and find the political will to invest in schools, we will experience the fallout from the pandemic for more than just a few years, but for generations to come.


Darby Saxbe is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, where she directs the USC Center for the Changing Family.

advertisement
advertisement