Congress must act for safe school opening during COVID-19

By Christine Johnson-Staub

With the start of a school year like no other, parents, teachers, child care providers, and state and district policymakers are trying to answer impossible questions with profound impacts on many – especially families with low incomes. Because of structural and institutional racism and the urgent crisis around racial injustice, Black families and other families of color—who are disproportionately harmed by the pandemic—face particularly difficult economic and educational choices. A COVID-19 plan that works for families, children, and schools must include paid leave for parents, nutrition support for children not attending school or child care in person, and affordable and safe child care options for children of all ages.

How to get there is a dilemma that families, child care providers, public schools, and policymakers must address. Ideally, all parties will hold coordinated and collaborative conversations at the state and school district level that center racial equity in developing solutions. By listening to and responding to the needs of Black families and other families of color, decisionmakers can avoid exacerbating the effects of long-standing racism in education, public health, and child care policies and practices. 

Unfortunately, decisionmakers can’t act without knowing when Congress will provide the economic relief families need. For months, the U.S. Senate has failed to create and extend economic and public health supports allowing families to meet basic needs so children can safely attend school and parents can get back to work. By kicking the can down the road, Congress is forcing state governments to face dire revenue shortfalls, which earlier COVID-19 relief funds haven’t addressed. Those supports were never intended to address a pandemic that will likely rage well into 2021, and many states have already exhausted those resources. 

How can Congress and states protect children and their families? Here are five steps they can take now.

  • First, and most importantly, Congress must pass a significant relief bill that recognizes child care as the public good it is by including at least $50 billion in child care funding. About 20 percent of providers, and half who are people of color, report they expect to close without additional financial help. This funding must support access to child care for infants and toddlers through school-age children. It must also be flexible enough to provide relief for parents’ child care expenses while also supporting providers to remain in business despite the additional expense of operating safely during the pandemic.
  • Second, state child care, education, and public health leaders must create an inclusive table so parents and community-based providers are part of the planning at the state and school-district level. For example, as states build capacity for school-age children who are learning remotely, they must 
    • support providers in expanding their capacity, 
    • build capacity for communities and families most underserved, 
    • meet the needs of children with a variety of developmental and linguistic needs, and 
    • avoid harming infants and toddlers in doing all of this.
    • Only by working collaboratively can communities address facilities, transportation, equitable workforce policies, and other issues. State leadership must model and encourage that commitment.
  • Third, states must quickly disburse federal and state dollars to families and child care providers. At the same time, they must maintain policies that help stabilize the field by 
    • paying providers based on enrollment rather than attendance;
    • waiving co-payments for families with child care subsidies; 
    • extending subsidy authorizations for families; and 
    • supporting providers with personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, nutrition services, business coaching, and comprehensive services for children they serve. 
  • Fourth, Congress must expand and extend the emergency paid leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This provides working parents up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to care for a child whose school is closed or mandating remote instruction—or whose child care provider is unavailable because of COVID. 
  • Finally, Congress must fund state and local educational agencies to adequately support student and educator needs. This includes funding for remote-learning technology, broadband access, supplies, and public safety precautions. The American Federation of Teachers estimates the average school will need $1.2 million+, or $2,300 per student, to open its doors safely. State and local budgets are stretched responding to the public health crisis. Many districts are already funded at a woefully inadequate level based on racially biased school funding formulas. Educators are calling for Congress to provide $175 billion for K-12 education; $135 billion for higher education; and  $33 billion to governors to help cover remaining gaps.

Making real progress in meeting children’s needs during this pandemic requires strong community and state leadership, authentic and significant input from parents and providers, and, most importantly, significant financial resources that only Congress can provide – and the time is now.