Reed Discusses Education, Reopening Schools, and Keeping Children Safe
Thank you very much, Senator, for those very thoughtful remarks. Twenty-one days—that is how long one Florida public school teacher was on a ventilator after contracting COVID this spring. Plasma transfusions and anti-viral medication ultimately saved her life. And now she is being asked to return to the classroom—a job she loves, teaching kids she loves. She wants to go back but is afraid to go back while the virus is surging, while more people in her community are being sent to the very same hospital. In Arizona, a small school district lost a teacher to COVID despite following all the protocols.
The superintendent called a safe reopening a fantasy, saying: ‘‘Kids will get sick or worse. Family members will die. Teachers will die.’’ Yet children will be denied needed education funding unless classes are in person, according to the President. Should the majority, which has failed to take action on the House-passed Heroes bill for months—should the Trump administration itself have done a better job making it safe for kids and teachers to return to school? Absolutely. And the continued failure to act, to lead, to do a better job of containing COVID will cost people their lives and children their education.
What is the Republican plan to avert this catastrophe? ‘‘OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!’’ the President tweets in all capital letters. The Republican plan is to open the schools for in-person learning—or else. Open the schools even when the transmission of the virus is not contained. Open the schools even if testing and contact tracing are inadequate to manage the spread of the virus. Open the schools even if your facilities do not have adequate ventilation. Open the schools or we will privatize the public school system. Open or else.
We know what happens when things reopen when community transmission remains high, when proper public health safety measures are not in place, when we do not have the rapidresult testing and contact tracing necessary to contain the virus. We get outbreaks. People get sick. Hospitalizations and deaths increase. What is the President’s response? He said: ‘‘It is what it is.’’ What has Senate Republican leadership prioritized? Shielding businesses from liability and being sued for negligence. In other words, if reopening too quickly results in more sickness, ‘‘it is what it is.’’
This approach is appalling and unacceptable and must be rejected. School is a lifeline for children in the communities hit hardest by the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout. The Federal Government must step in with a comprehensive plan and the resources to make sure that school is there for these children, the teachers, the custodians, the parents, the family. We know this school year will be like no other. School districts will need to redesign the school day and be prepared to switch to distance learning, as necessary.
There will be new protocols for sanitization, transportation, and staffing. Teachers need training on how to stay safe in the classroom. You will recall that many in this body wanted to add firearms training to the list of teacher duties. It is disheartening to note that many of the same Members who wanted to equip teachers with guns and firearms training are now unwilling to provide them with basic cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. They are denying them the resources and training they need to keep themselves and their students safe from a very clear and present danger: COVID–19. Schools will have to reengineer the use of space in and around the school building and reconfigure classrooms to ensure that social distancing can be maintained.
With the recent Government Accountability Office report showing that over half of school districts nationwide need to update or replace multiple systems in their schools, such as heating, ventilation, air-conditioning—HVAC—and plumbing, dedicated funding for infrastructure is needed as well. In fact, we need significant money for school infrastructure. We needed it before COVID. We need more of it today. More critically, schools will need to increase their capacity to support children’s well-being—including nutrition, health screening, and mental health support—whether in person or at a distance.
The first step in any reasonable plan to reopen schools starts with robust, rapid-result testing and contact tracing to contain the spread of the virus. There is no path for safe in-person schooling without it. That is step one, and the President has not taken that step yet. A comprehensive plan for schools would also stabilize State and local budgets, ensure equity and access to technology and broadband, enhance nutrition services, and provide support for our broader educational ecosystem, including afterschool programs, museums, and libraries. For example, without a robust investment in our public libraries, we will continue to struggle to close the digital divide and the homework gap. Many, many, many, many school systems today are beginning their classes on a remote basis.
The children need an electronic device—some type of laptop, something—and they also need access to Wi-Fi. Many families don’t have that. And unless we step in with the resources to support the localities and States in providing those capacities, those children will be denied an education. One way, as I suggested, to do that is through our public libraries. As I have gone through Rhode Island, it was encouraging to see in the afternoon, throughout the State—in small libraries, everywhere—young people doing their homework. They don’t have Wi-Fi at home; they have it in the library.
This is just part of what we have to do, and libraries can be at the heart of that. We have to put the resources, the commitment, the plan, the leadership, the force, and the momentum behind this effort, and we have seen none of that in the administration. The most fundamental aspect of all of this is that it does come down to the resources—the substantial, dedicated resources that have to go to our public schools to meet these additional costs, to meet these additional demands, to serve this generation of young Americans who, if they are denied these services, will be denied an education. And that is not just a momentary loss; that is a cumulative, lifetime effect that will not only deny them a chance at opportunity, it will deny this Nation their talent. These are the issues that we are struggling with at this moment. These are the issues we must confront.
We— the Democratic caucus—have been calling for $175 billion to support our public schools, to put education in a place in which this generation of students can learn, to make this country or continue to keep this country what we always thought it was: a special place in which anyone with the ability and the desire to learn would have the opportunity to do so. And that would mean their success and our community’s and our country’s success. We are counting on schools being able to deliver for students despite the challenges caused by this pandemic. Yet the Senate majority and the Trump administration are unwilling to commit the resources necessary to avoid a potential generational catastrophe. State and local governments are reeling from the loss of revenue due to the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic.
There is no Governor in this country—Republican or Democrat—there is no county administrator or city leader who I think would stand up and say: ‘‘We are fine. We don’t need any help. We are in great shape.’’ No. They all have one message, and it has been coming through from the National Association of Republican Governors and the National Association of Democratic Governors: You must give us resources and flexibility to use these resources to fulfill our obligation to the people of our States. That is the message. We are seeing school districts across the Nation starting to lay people off in anticipation of budget cuts. Even if they are able to maintain current levels of staffing and financial resources, it would not be enough to meet the upcoming challenges. Even if they could keep their staff in place, where do they get the extra money for the infrastructure repairs, for the traditional Wi-Fi, for the additional teaching changes that have to take place, for the different approaches to education one must take in order to be effective in social distancing? The School Superintendents Association of the United States estimates that the average traditional COVID-related cost per student will be $490. We need at least that.
We must go forward with a package that includes provisions of the Childcare Educational Relief Act, the Library Stabilization Fund Act, and the State and Local Stabilization Fund Act to ensure that this generation of Americans can overcome the pandemic and reach its full potential. This is a generational crisis. Just as Americans of previous generations have been called upon to sacrifice and to commit themselves to the young of this country so that they could have a better future, we are being called upon to do that, and we are waiting for an answer.
Thank you. I yield the floor.