By Amanda Menas
Educators across the country know that in order for students and school communities to recover from the emotional and financial crisis spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, legislators need to invest in the public education system now.
People of color have suffered the worst consequences of the pandemic by every measure–from rates of illness and death to unemployment to food insecurity and even lack of access to distance learning.
NEA is working hard to address those issues of equity and access.
On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was signed into law, providing direct payments to families, and addressing many urgent needs of our students, educators and schools. Specifically, the bill provides a six-month suspension of student loan payments, and an education stabilization fund. Congress took substantial steps to combat the health and economic crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, but more must be done.
“We thank Congress for leading this bipartisan agreement but also want to be clear while it is another step forward, much more will be needed. We call on Congress to work together quickly on the next package and…prevent dramatic cuts from hitting our schools, impacting student services and ensure educators do not lose their jobs,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia about the $2.2 trillion stimulus package.
But Congress must do more. Under our current inequitable school funding system, moving to a large scale use of technology in preK–12 and post-secondary education will widen existing achievement gaps among students. School districts with lower income populations simply will not be able to provide the relevant digital tools and broadband access for all students.
Here are six steps Congress can take to support all public school educators and students in the next bill:
The “Homework Gap”
Congress refused to provide adequate direct funding for WiFi hotspots, connection devices and mobile wireless service through the existing and successful E-rate program to help our students most in need. With tens of millions of students at home and educators seeking ways to deliver instruction, every student needs the technology to ensure they don’t fall behind. NEA advocates for $2 billion to address the digital divide too many students face, often referred to as the “homework gap.” Congress should correct this omission in its next relief package, much like Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer had proposed for this package.
In order to counter the learning loss happening through school closures and prevent educator layoffs, Congress must provide more funding to states. NEA is asking for at least $175 billion to distribute to states to be used for public pre-K through post-secondary education to fill budget gaps caused by declining state revenues due to the national emergency. This funding will also help states address opportunity gaps for students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners, among others.
Student debt relief
While the 6-month suspension on student loan payments will provide some much-needed relief to educators and others faced with crushing debt, more could — and should — be done. We believe student loan payments should be canceled not suspended, and, after the national emergency ends, at least $30,000 in student loan debt should be forgiven per student.
All Americans need paid sick leave not just when they are sick, but when they need to care for incapacitated family members. With state budget shortfalls looming ever larger, the federal government needs to pay a bigger share of Medicaid costs to stave off cuts in education and other essential public services. COBRA should also be extended to provide relief to federal, state, and local employees.
Vote by mail
In order to protect everyone’s right to vote while ensuring public health and safety, steps must be taken to help states prepare for the election. The last bill provides funding for that purpose, including increasing the ability to vote by mail, and expanding early voting and online registration. The money provided thus far is not nearly enough to ensure every citizen actually has the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot or other means in November’s nationwide elections.
Due to housing insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the systemic under-counting of children in previous Census counts, funding needs to be allocated in the next federal bill to make sure college students displaced by COVID-19 who normally live on campus are counted. Additionally, Congress should increase virtual outreach efforts to make sure we are increasing Census survey return rates, including distribution of hotspots in the case of closure of public libraries. Funding is needed to send additional census forms to encourage houses to submit their information online or by mail. If houses do not respond by late-April, individuals will be required to go door-to-door, putting more people at risk of contracting COVID-19.