The Senate health committee on Wednesday considered the steps schools should take to reopen later this year as officials seek to protect students, teachers and staff from COVID-19 while compensating for learning gaps students experienced this year.
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing focused less on whether schools should reopen but more on how to do so safely, which may include a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Senators pressed the witnesses on how to make up for gaps in education that students may have faced after finishing the academic year virtually and how to account for disparities such as economic status, race or learning disabilities.
“It is likely that some schools will need to keep their physical buildings closed, either fully or partially, for all or some of our students,” said ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Susana Cordova, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools in Colorado, said the city is planning for all students to participate in a mix of in-person and distance learning this fall. All students will have a minimum of 40 percent of their education time spent in person. "Priority learners,” including students with disabilities, English learners or students not on track to graduate, would receive an additional full day of in-person instruction a week.
“This is an important equity measure that will help mitigate the impact of lost learning from remote time,” she said.
The costs associated with preparing to reopen schools could be high. Penny Schwinn, the commissioner of education for the Tennessee Department of Education, said its estimates were that it could cost the state between $100 million and $175 million for the year. Funding provided to states in an economic relief package earlier this year will help cover some of those costs, she said.
Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is also a senior appropriator, said it would be "helpful if you could provide some specifics to committee about exactly what it would take in terms of financial support to open our schools safely."
Tennessee is also considering whether to expand liability protections for teachers or school districts related to the COVID-19 pandemic to make returning to school easier, Schwinn told Alexander.
Senate Republicans have said that liability protections are a priority in future legislation to respond to the pandemic.
One of the main challenges for distance learning is ensuring that students have internet access, senators said. Access to adequate devices or enough devices in a family is also a challenge, said John King, a former Obama administration Education secretary and president and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps for students.
“You often have a situation where maybe there’s one device in the home but there’s multiple kids and they need to be able to use devices simultaneously,” King said. “Tackling the digital divide is essential.”
Teachers in some under-resourced districts didn’t have the training needed to transition to distance learning, he added.
King agreed that most schools will have some degree of distance learning next year, given that students with preexisting health conditions may need to stay home or for other reasons.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also raised concerns about broadband access, noting that the Federal Communications Commission expanded the E-Rate program, which helps schools afford broadband access, so that students could go to a school parking lot to do their work. She noted that some internet companies have provided free internet access to families, but it’s not clear how long that will last.
“What we’re told is that without changes to statute, they can't provide support for tele-education into students’ homes,” she said.
Senators also raised concerns about the challenges that students with learning disabilities are facing through distance learning and how the achievement gap could widen.
King said that diagnostic assessment will be needed to evaluate students' academic deficits when they return to school, and noted that Tennessee and Texas have said they will make state funds available to do so.
“Once we know students are behind, we have to do something about it,” he said, noting that foreign countries opened early for students who fell behind, or that summer distance learning may be needed.
Sens. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Casey, D-Penn., both raised concerns about making sure schools could help support students with learning disabilities.
“Lack of funding plus lack of assistive technology compounds inequities and exacerbates these achievement gaps,” Casey said.