Most years, the first day of school arrives with anticipation and possibility as students, parents, teachers, and administrators look forward to the hope and promise of a new year.
This year is different. The return to school has engendered uncertainty and even frustration. Each school district is struggling to balance safety and educational quality in a COVID-19 world, and to do so in a way that is best for their own communities.
There are no easy answers. Remote learning may be more successful in protecting the public health, but let’s face it, for the overwhelming number of students, a virtual education is no substitute for traditional, face-to-face learning. It also puts a greater strain on parents juggling jobs while serving as “teacher’s aides” for their children.
But reopening too widely and too soon can put students, teachers, and school workers at risk.
School leaders face this balancing act under public pressure from all sides and with continually changing conditions and health guidance.
So as our schools continue to juggle their reopening plans, whether they’re in-person, virtual or somewhere in between, it is in everyone’s best interest to take a deep breath and recognize that we all want what is best for Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million students. We all want them to stay on track educationally while keeping them, and their families, healthy and safe.
So how do we get there, and what will it take?
First, we all need to take a breath and understand that each person has unique circumstances that guide their preference for their child’s learning.
We are all doing the very best we can, and starting from that place of patience and understanding will go a long way in providing smooth transitions for our students.
But in order to provide quality learning during a pandemic, our schools will also need more resources.
In the short term, Congress needs to step up and do its part. Funding through the CARES Act this spring provided some aid to districts as they pivoted to distance learning. But the U.S. Senate, in particular, is dragging its feet on providing much-needed additional funding to schools in order to help them deal with lost revenue and increased costs as they strive to keep students on track, let alone improve their outcomes.
Congress has the power to provide a little more certainty to school districts for this school year by directing more federal dollars to local districts.
But even with strong congressional action to help schools through the immediate crisis, we need to recognize that many students — particularly those with special needs, English Language Learners and those with inadequate access to the necessary technology — will not be where they would be if this school year were a normal one.
Moving forward, it will take more money, not less, to get them back on track once we are through the pandemic.
The state must finally solve its longstanding school funding crisis, which it faced long before the first case of COVID-19 reached Pennsylvania.
For years, some Pennsylvania lawmakers have enacted state funding decisions and policies that erode funding from the districts that need it most. By not providing adequate funding to our schools, they’ve only widened the difference between students who live in areas where local taxpayers can “afford” — and I’m using the term loosely — to pick up the slack for the state lawmakers who left their local communities holding the bag.
With our schools in crisis, we need additional federal and state funding more than ever.
We know our kids are facing a challenge. We need to provide our schools with enough resources to help them.