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How billions of dollars in COVID aid will help schools reopen

Living through a full year of closed schools and distance learning has taken a heavy toll on students, parents, teachers and school administrators. The new stimulus bill sets aside roughly $125 billion to help K-12 schools reopen. Laura Meckler, a national education writer at The Washington Post, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Living through a full year of closed schools and distance learning has taken a heavy toll on students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.

    As William Brangham reports, the COVID relief law is meant to speed the return of the U.S. education system to more traditional school routines.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the bill sets aside roughly $122 billion to help K-12 schools reopen. It includes money to improve ventilation systems, reduce class sizes and buy schools personal protective gear.

    During a visit to a school in Concord, New Hampshire today, first lady Jill Biden said everyone would benefit.

  • Jill Biden:

    We are going to safely reopen our schools. We are going to get people back to work. When schools like Christa McAuliffe are open full-time and child care providers are safe and affordable, parents can focus on the careers that they love and support their families.

  • William Brangham:

    Laura Meckler is the national education writer at The Washington Post.

    Laura, thank you very much for being here.

    I think it's fair to say that if you carved out $125 billion from this bill and said this was a stand-alone education bill, this would be a record-setting size of money to begin with.

    I mentioned some of the things that this is going to be spent on. Where is this money going to go? What else is it going to be spent on?

  • Laura Meckler:

    Well, a lot of the money — and, indeed, it is a lot of money — is going to be spent on staffing.

    One thing they want to do is prevent layoffs. And, of course, in some places, tax collections are down. School district budgets are always being squeezed. So this will allow them to maintain staffing or perhaps grow staffing.

    There's situations where if you want to, for instance, keep some distance on a bus, you might need another bus driver, you might need another bus. You are both keeping the building facilities itself safe, but you're also trying to have the staffing that's necessary to keep kids apart.

  • William Brangham:

    We have all heard through this entire pandemic, stay six feet apart.

    There's increasing research that maybe three feet apart is considered safe. That would certainly change the dynamic for schools, if that became the recommendation, right?

  • Laura Meckler:

    Yes, this has been a subject of a lot of hot debate in the education world lately.

    The CDC has — as you know, we have all been hearing six feet, six feet for a year now. But there is research that suggests that if you do a lot of other mitigation strategies, and, most importantly, wearing masks that three feet is OK. The World Health Organization recommends three feet. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three feet.

    And part of the reason is because they say, in a school setting, you need to balance the risks, and that not having kids back in school or having them only in for a few hours a week does a lot of damage to kids, so that maybe it's a bigger risk to have them at home so much than it is to have them further — a little bit closer together in the school building.

    So, yes, the CDC director told us this week that she is looking at revising that guideline. And so we may see soon a change, maybe some sort of either all or in certain situations of three feet being enough.

  • William Brangham:

    We also know that this year put kids at an incredible deficit, as you were saying, that getting them back in school is a priority for everyone, really.

    I know some of this money is targeted for what is called learning loss. Is that what it sounds like, that this is trying to help fill some of the deficits that have occurred this year?

  • Laura Meckler:

    Yes, exactly.

    There has been enormous damage done to students over the last year, socially, emotionally and also academically. We have research from testing that was done in the fall that just measured what happened when — for the months of school that were lost at the end of last school year, because, of course, schools shut down in the middle of March, and there was still quite a bit of school to go.

    And even just based on that, the test scores show kids were several months behind already. And that was before we really got into the bulk of this year. And those deficits are even greater for the kids who come from high-poverty families and greater for black and Hispanic children.

    It is a serious issue. The Congress told the states that in — through this bill, they're getting a lot of money, as we have said, but each district is required to spend 20 percent of their funds on mitigating learning loss.

    So that might be a robust summer school program. That might be high-intensity tutoring. They're looking at a lot of different things. But those are two of the most popular ways that people are thinking about to try to really help kids make up some of this deficit.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that the bulk of this money is geared towards public schools and public school kids, but there is some money carved out for private schools, which, if memory serves, was certainly something that Democrats didn't like back when Betsy DeVos, the former education secretary, tried to do that.

    But now that is — that's in this bill, too.

  • Laura Meckler:

    There is a special carve-out for private schools.

    Now. I will say one of the controversies around Secretary DeVos is that she was using some of the public school allocation and writing the formula in a way that many people thought was unfair and channeling too much money to private schools.

    In this case, there's no doubt with the law says. The law says that more than $2 billion, almost $3 billion is set aside for private schools. Now, traditionally, Democrats have said public schools get public money. Private schools do not. They have been opposed to vouchers and other school choice type programs

    However, the rationale from the Senate majority leader, among others, Chuck Schumer, was that they — these private schools have also been hit hard by the pandemic, which, of course, is true, and that they also need — they also serve a number of children.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the criticisms of this — of the larger relief bill, but also of this education money, has been this is so much money, and there is left-over unspent money from prior relief bills.

    How true is that?

  • Laura Meckler:

    Well, it's true. There is money leftover from previous relief bills.

    The school districts will tell you that's because they have budgeted those funds, but they haven't yet spent them that. Like any wise budgeters, you spend it a little bit at a time. You don't know if you're going to ever get any more. So you want to make it last.

    Republicans respond, hey, if it's an emergency, it would have been spent already. So, why do you need more?

    So that's sort of where the debate came down. And the bill passed, and we're moving on.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Laura Meckler of The Washington Post, thank you very much for being here.

  • Laura Meckler:

    Thanks for having me.

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