Weekly Democratic Address
September 4, 2020
Hello, I’m Congressman Bobby Scott from Virginia’s 3rd District, and I chair the House Committee on Education and Labor.
In normal times, August and September mark the end of summer and the start of a new school year for students across the country. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for many schools to safely reopen for in-person instruction.
We all want our children to return to the classroom as soon as possible. In-person instruction is better for academic achievement; it’s better for social and emotional learning; better for access to nutrition through school meals; and better for identifying and addressing cases of child abuse and neglect.
And while short-term virtual learning has its benefits, the data show that long-term distance learning exacerbates achievement gaps for low-income students, students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities. Further, we know we cannot fully reopen our economy until we reopen our classrooms.
So, there is no debate about whether we want our students back in school. The only question is whether or not it can be done safely.
The reality is that without significant federal funding, most schools cannot afford the safety measures that are needed to protect students, school staff and their families. This includes everything from buying Personal Protective Equipment and cleaning supplies to securing additional transportation services so students are not traveling to school on crowded buses. Safely reopening the schools will also require reconfiguring classrooms to accommodate social distancing guidelines and repairing school ventilation systems.
As the CDC has identified, adequate ventilation systems are a key component to reopening safely. Yet, four in ten school districts need to update or replace heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in at least half their buildings. All of these measures are necessary for safely reopening schools and keeping them open. But none of them are free.
And while schools are facing pandemic-related expenses, they are also facing devastating funding cuts due to massive budget shortfalls at state and local levels. These shortfalls could easily reach $500 billion for states and $600 billion for local governments.
So, unless the federal government steps up, state and local governments will have to balance their budgets on the backs of students and teachers. It won’t be a question of whether these cuts will occur, only how deep they will be.
This moment demands national leadership. But the Trump Administration has provided no plan for safely reopening classrooms. Instead, it’s telling schools, “reopen or we’ll cut your funding.” That is not a plan. We cannot simply reopen schools and hope for the best. Over the last two weeks, alone, roughly 70,000 children have contracted the virus.
More than 100 days ago, the House passed the Heroes Act, which would provide nearly $1 trillion in state and local relief to help prevent deep cuts to public education, and $100 billion in direct education aid. The House also passed an infrastructure package, which included $130 billion for school construction to repair unsafe school buildings, including ventilation systems.
Nearly four months later, the need is even greater. And so, Democrats are now fighting for $300 billion to help reopen schools safely and maintain services for students.
In some communities with high rates of transmission, no amount of mitigation makes in-person instruction safe for students and staff. In response, Democrats are working to provide the resources necessary to make virtual education more effective. Most importantly, we are still advocating for significant relief for state and local governments to avoid painful program cuts and teacher layoffs in the months ahead.
In contrast, the Senate Republican proposal includes no money for state and local governments. The education funding in the Republican bill would cover less than half of the projected state and local budget cuts to education. Our students, parents and educators deserve better.
Instead of pretending that the virus and its economic consequences will suddenly just go away, Republicans in Washington must join us in taking immediate action.
Unless Congress passes a comprehensive relief package to meet the urgency of the moment, most school districts will not have the resources they need to safely reopen and provide students with a quality education.
Supporting schools should not be a political issue. Together, we must, and can, pass a comprehensive relief package that demonstrates our commitment to the health and well-being of our nation’s children.
Thank you and please stay safe.