Congress must act NOW to stem the damage from COVID-19
Two weeks after returning from vacation, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his Senate enablers revealed their current take on COVID-19—a bill with zero chance of passing the Senate, let alone the House. Those shortcomings reflect the chaos and disarray within the GOP, and something even worse: a refusal to take the pandemic seriously. More than two months after the House passed the HEROES Act, nothing has changed from the GOP’s perspective.
Officially called the HEALS Act—a cruel irony—McConnell’s bill does too little, too late about what students, parents, and educators care about most: reopening schools safely, providing meaningful distance learning, and bridging the gaps in state and local budgets that have already cost nearly a million educators their jobs.
Again and again, McConnell has proclaimed liability protection his top priority—in his own words, to protect against “an epidemic of lawsuits” that does not exist. His bill waives liability but requires neither federal nor state mandates to protect health and safety—an approach that encourages schools and campuses to reopen despite public health concerns while sending the message that they are, indeed, unsafe.
Other provisions further political and ideological goals. To pressure schools to reopen without regard to safety, the HEALS Act reserves two-thirds of K-12 emergency funding for schools that physically reopen and provide in-person instruction. To help privatize education—Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ goal from the start—the bill uses two mechanisms to siphon funding from the public schools that educate 9 out of 10 students: vouchers funneled through non-profits (like foundations) and set-asides for private schools.
The true nature of the HEALS Act—a transparent attempt to achieve political goals, not alleviate suffering—is revealed by what it does NOT do. The suspension of payments on student loan debt is not renewed. The moratorium on evicting renters is not renewed. States and localities do not get any of the support they need to close the budget caps caused by COVID-19, an omission that could prolong the pandemic and worsen the economic crisis.
COVID-19 has already done more than enough damage to our nation—more than 150,000 deaths and the biggest quarterly economic contraction in U.S. history. To save lives, stem the economic decline, and begin the healing, Congress needs to stop playing games and craft a bipartisan bill that can pass both the House and the Senate. The road to recovery truly does run through our schools and campuses. TAKE ACTION
ESP of the Year’s take on McConnell’s bill
Andrea Beeman, NEA’s 2020 Education Support Professional of the Year, participated in a July 28 panel discussion sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “The Impact of McConnell’s Immunity Proposal on Workers and Communities of Color.” Immunity from liability is the centerpiece of the HEALS Act Majority Leader McConnell introduced in the Senate last Monday.
“It seems to me that we are doing the OPPOSITE of what we should be doing to reopen schools for in-person learning,” Beeman said. “Instead of striving to contain the pandemic BEFORE we return to in-person learning, by focusing on waiving liability for keeping schools safe, we are saying to students, educators, and families: Beware. Enter at your own risk.” A special education paraprofessional at Maple Heights High School in Maple Heights, Ohio, Beeman started her career as a paraeducator 19 years ago. In her current position, she works with students who have severe developmental disabilities.
Require schools for military kids to implement remote instruction
The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) is requiring most of the schools it operates—here and overseas—to reopen and offer in-person instruction five days a week despite a resurgence of COVID-19 in many of those places. Students exposed to COVID-19 at school could bring the virus home and infect their parents, which could have a devastating impact on our nation’s military readiness. DoDEA educators are eager to return to their schools and see their students, but are concerned about safety—specifically, the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the feasibility of social distancing, and adequate staffing levels.
Rather than risk an in-person opening of DoDEA schools, remote instruction should be implemented for many reasons: it would provide time to address staffing needs, procure PPE, develop realistic cleaning procedures, and educate students and their parents about their options. DoDEA has promised to expand the Virtual School Program created before the pandemic—which provides specialized content and requires students to enroll for an entire semester—but planning and staffing remain in flux. Instead, DoDEA schools should open remotely when the new school year starts.
Cheers and Jeers
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act (S. 4360/H.R. 7848), which would create a $2.5 billion grant program for school districts seeking to replace law enforcement officers with psychologists, social workers, and other staff with mental health expertise.
Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and David Joyce (R-OH) introduced the bipartisan Protecting Access to Loan Forgiveness for Public Servants Act (H.R. 7761) to ensure that educators whose jobs are disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic still qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) introduced the RETAIN Act, which would create a fully refundable tax credit to encourage early childhood educators to remain in the profession.
House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act, which would expand access to free school meals for all children during the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the school meal program from collapsing.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) called slavery a “necessary evil” and introduced a bill to discourage schools from including 1619 Project materials in their curricula because they teach students to “hate America.” The first enslaved Africans arrived in America in 1619.