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Just the Facts: COVID and the Reopening of Schools… Who gets to decide?


If you are like me, you may be anxiously awaiting your local school's decision to know if/how they plan to reopen this fall. For parents, students, and staff alike, this has been a question on our minds for months as we contemplate what our lives will look like this fall. I'm personally left wondering how I may need to manage my work schedule with new school schedules? How should I set up workspaces in my home to accommodate a more "permanent" home-schooling environment? And, of course, what kind of child care will I need? Many Americans, not knowing the answer to these and related questions, are driving an increased rate of anxiety across the country. It is not surprising then that as we get closer and closer to the fall, the questions regarding school reopening has become a significant political debate. For example, many question the safety with which a school can conduct in-person learning. Others argue that children's and youth's social and emotional needs are more paramount than the relatively “low-risk” of catching the virus. Others speak about the notable economic impact that schools have on our Nation's economy, both short and long term. And, some argue fewer reopening options exist for often over-crowded schools serving low-socioeconomic communities- the same communities already disproportionately impacted by COVID. So, where does that leave those of us awaiting answers, and who should we listen to? Our federal leaders or those closer to home? Let's see if we can shed some light on this timely debate.


Schools have now been closed since as early as February in some states, and in looking back, it feels like a lifetime ago. Yet here we are in July, and many schools would be reopening in the next few weeks if not for COVID. Even in higher education, students who have, by in large, been away from campuses since March, should begin returning to schools with some sports teams already training for fall sports. For most Americans, we have been looking to our governors and local education agencies to give us guidance and answers as to how they plan to reopen our schools, what transportation will be offered, and how remote learning will be supported. And, that's because those are the entities that make such decisions. As the US Department of Education's website states, "(I)t is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine enrollment and graduation requirements." Yet over the past week, we have increasingly heard from federal policymakers offering strong statements as to how and when schools should reopen. Our President has gone so far as to say that he no longer believes that the decision to reopen schools should be left entirely up to governors and has instead made the blanket statement that schools will reopen. Recently, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump wanted to "substantially bump up money for education" in the next coronavirus relief package, without offering a specific dollar amount. But she added that the White House may demand that the additional assistance is "tied to the student and not to a district where schools are closed."


This then begs the question of what precisely is the role of the federal government as it pertains to our education system, and can that role supersede states under such unprecedented circumstances? Again we need to look at our Nation's federalist structure for that answer.  


Many of us believe that the US Constitution stipulates the right to an education. Alas, it's not. However, education is so intricately tied to the ability of an individual to exercise other, actual, constitutional rights, the Supreme Court determined that every citizen should be guaranteed the right to a free and appropriate public education. As noted above, states and local governments hold most of the power and responsibility for administering our public education system. Yet, in a federalist system, we know that the federal government must also have a role. Yet it wasn't until the 1960s and the civil rights movement that the federal government began to assert it. Since then, the federal investment in public education has expanded, yet it has also remained somewhat limited. The role of the federal government is primary to fund two specific education programs. The first is special education as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the second is to help support schools serving impoverished communities. So, can these two roles be interpreted in such a way to allow the federal government to mandate the reopening of schools? No.


Our federalist system has designated the majority of responsibility for educating our children to the states and simultaneously limiting the part of the feds. So, the federal government cannot mandate if/how schools reopen. Can the federal government, however, try to influence the reopening process? Sure. Congress and the Administration can offer the states billions of dollars to assist them in reopening, but those funds can also be conditional to the fulfillment of strict federal requirements. Requirements that would commit states in need of money to enact measures prioritized by the federal government but perhaps not their own. As Vice President Pence said, "As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we're going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school." The reopening of schools is perhaps one of the most complex aspects of the pandemic thus far as the stakeholders invested in the outcome are so many and varied. Other countries have delved into this unprecedented set of circumstances and there are lessons to be learned from those experiences. But for now, we sit and wait for that one email, call, or text to tell us what our future may hold.

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