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Want to know what is on our minds? Find blog posts written here, by the City Club staff, members, and partners. Every week you can find a new edition of #FreeSpeech in the News — a collection of related stories, commentary, and opinions on free speech in the 21st century that’s making the news. You’ll also find takes on current events, past forums, and issues surrounding Northeast Ohio. Read on for all things City Club.

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Schools need federal support to reopen, operate safely

Guest Author

Schools need federal support to reopen, operate safely

by Piet van Lier, researcher at Policy Matters Ohio and City Club of Cleveland Member

They might complain about school, but kids across Ohio are eager to get back. If they’re like mine, they miss seeing friends every day and connecting with teachers who challenge them and open their minds.

As the father of two public-school children, I know that even when two parents work from home, remote schooling puts a strain on families, greatly diminishes children’s learning and hinders their social development.

Parental concerns about children and jobs are only part of the story — many adults who work in schools have underlying health conditions or family members who do. Their health and safety must be a top concern.

With start dates only weeks away, public schools are being forced to make decisions without real support from federal and state policymakers.

Educators and parents seem to agree that online learning doesn’t work for most kids. Our 8th-grader completed assigned work but didn’t actively engage in online sessions. Our 1st-grader’s resistance grew until every day was an exhausting struggle. I can only imagine what it was like for families with adults who must work outside the home, bad or no internet connectivity, not enough computers or tablets, or children with learning disabilities. Research shows the pandemic already has set students back months and widened racial and economic gaps — we noticed that a third or more of our kids’ classmates in Cleveland rarely if ever attended online sessions.

What are policymakers doing to address this emergency?

Confusion reigns at the federal level, with the Trump administration demanding that schools reopen. A plan passed by the House would bring more than $2 billion to Ohio schools, but the White House and Senate are considering a much smaller relief effort.

Ohio’s vague guidelines focus on screening, cleaning, distancing, covering faces and assessing risk, but don’t address evolving concern about the airborne transmission of COVID-19. With budgets being cut across Ohio, public schools focused on safety will be hard pressed to do more than offer part-time in-person schooling, an option announced by several districts across the state.

Cincinnati’s public schools face a $48 million shortfall and have passed a $23-million plan that alternates students between in-school and remote learning. The $100 million Columbus City Schools plan, now under reconsideration, would teach all high school students online, with younger children attending in person two days a week. Cleveland announced a late start to the school year with a plan yet to come.

Ohio policymakers haven’t offered much in the way of financial relief, either. After cutting $300 million from K-12 for the fiscal year that ended in June, Gov. Mike DeWine declared his desire to keep “funding at that flat level” until revenue increases. He says he expects to eventually spend down the state’s $2.7 billion rainy day fund, but there are other options to raise revenue. Policy Matters Ohio identified $1 billion in state revenue that could be directed to education by closing special interest tax breaks and rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy.

With meaningful emergency funding, schools could hire paraprofessionals or teaching assistants to work with small groups of students outside school and add custodial staff for cleaning.

Relief funding also could help schools reconfigure air circulation systems to kill the virus, which a growing scientific consensus deems essential. As it stands, only the wealthiest public and private schools will be able to take steps to ensure buildings are safe for everyone.

We can do better. Federal and state policymakers must provide clear guidance and properly targeted funding to allow a safe restart, especially for schools serving high-poverty populations. If we are to at least minimize the disruption that will happen as the school year starts, the time to act is now.

Piet van Lier researches education issues for Policy Matters Ohio, a state policy research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

This article first appeared in the Columbus Dispatch.

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