Will schools get help from Congress to reopen? Va. educators share concerns

School systems are struggling with critical decisions over how they should reopen, and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., warned educators on Wednesday that it could be “a rocky couple of weeks” before Congress provides funding to help them deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Warner said during a virtual meeting that Senate Democrats and Republicans are more than $100 billion apart on what they are proposing to spend for K-12 schools in new COVID-19 legislation.

About $70 billion of a GOP proposal would go to secondary schools, while Warner said he supports a Democratic proposal to spend $175 billion.

He pointed out that schools have many potential additional needs due to the pandemic, including personal protective equipment and retrofitting classrooms, as well as major demands related to broadband internet service.

“We need the money now. We need to actually do this, even to start schools,” said Preann Johnson, principal at James K. Polk Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia.

She asked Warner when school systems might start receiving money, given that they should be ordering things such as PPE right now for staff.

“I think we’re going to go through a rocky couple of weeks,” Warner said of the current efforts to hammer out a new agreement on pandemic legislation.

He believes lawmakers and the White House will eventually agree on legislation that could be passed in early August. If that happens, money would get into the pipeline toward states and school systems by Labor Day, at the earliest.

But many school systems will resume classes in the coming weeks, so educators said they need to start planning now.

Warner said he has proposed legislation that would block the Trump administration from holding back federal money to states that have school systems that don’t decide to let kids physically return to class.

It’s unclear exactly how the administration would hold back funds for schools, which largely come from the state and local level. Warner called it a “scare tactic,” but felt legislation was necessary to prevent it from happening.

“Let’s make absolutely clear that the secretary of education does not have the right to restrict appropriated monies,” he said.

“I believe the decision on how to open, when to open, how much in-person, how much online (teaching) ought to be made by superintendents, principals, teachers, parents,” Warner added. “And it ought to be made at a local level and should not be dictated to by Washington.”

Warner received several questions from educators who addressed a wide range of concerns, including the lack of specific guidance on reopening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued general guidelines, but critics note that they appear to be written to go along with President Donald Trump’s push to reopen classrooms. The president last week acknowledged some schools may have to delay reopening.

Mark Johnston, the superintendent of Shenandoah County schools, said educators are facing serious issues and wondered when more federal guidance would be offered.

“As opening day comes closer, I get more and more worried that I’m going to be jeopardizing someone, if not with their life, with a chronic condition that may last the rest of their life,” he said.

Warner acknowledged that it’s a difficult situation, and said he regretted that he didn’t have a concrete answer on when improved guidance will come.

“I think bottom line from our school divisions: We want more flexibility and more waivers, more funding and more specificity on how to make health decisions,” said James Lane, superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education, who moderated the discussion.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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