The U.S. Department of Education (ED) convened the National Safe School Reopening Summit to share strategies and guidance to help schools return to in-person instruction quickly and safely. Also, President Biden announced $81 billion in education relief funds is already on its way to states as new, national survey data shows that millions of students only attend school remotely and receive little live instruction. Plus, the public comment period on new E-rate funding is open, and the Senate held its confirmation hearing for Cindy Marten to be the deputy secretary of education.
ED’s School Reopening Summit was a packed, three-hour event that included remarks from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky. Across three panels, health experts, educators, school leaders, and students shared strategies, best practices, and guidance to help schools as they move to reopen for in-person instruction. For example, as one of California’s first districts to reopen for in-person learning, Cajon Valley School District, whose superintendent serves on our Future Ready Schools® Advisory Board, was featured. In particular, the district’s reopening plan and work to support students’ social-emotional well-being were highlighted at the summit.
In addition to the panel discussions on reopening strategies, school safety, and supporting students’ needs, President Biden announced the immediate dispersal of $81 billion in education relief funds to states to help schools reopen. The funds also will support the creation of a new summer learning and enrichment collaborative between ED, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governor’s Association. The collaborative will support states in using funds provided by the American Rescue Plan to develop and implement summer learning and enrichment programs to address learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, it was announced that Secretary Cardona will go on a national tour visiting reopened schools.
The event closed with remarks from President Biden, urging schools to use these resources to do what is necessary to reopen.
The latest emergency relief comes at a critical time. Just before the summit, ED released new, national survey data on student learning during the pandemic. According to the survey, school remained remote for nearly half of elementary and middle school students as of early February. Worse still, the survey finds that 5 percent of fourth graders and 10 percent of eighth graders received no live instruction at all. Additionally, there were large racial disparities among fully remote students: 69 percent of Asian, 58 percent of Black, and 57 percent of Latino fourth-grade students were fully remote compared with only 27 percent of White students.
As a part of the national push to fully reopen schools and provide in-person learning to all students, the CDC revised its safety guidelines for K–12 schools. The CDC now recommends a minimum of three feet of separation between students in addition to universal masking. The previous recommendation of six feet of separation remains in effect for middle and high schools in communities with high COVID-19 transmission rates, unless schools employ a cohort model in which students are taught in the same small group throughout the day.
Many welcome this change and hope that these updated guidelines, coupled with additional resources through the American Rescue Plan, will significantly increase in-school instruction. However, the presidents of both national teachers’ unions raised concerns that underresourced communities may still struggle to implement strategies to limit COVID-19 transmission. In a letter, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, urged Secretary Cardona and CDC Director Walensky to combine these more relaxed guidelines with strengthened COVID-19 testing, universal masking, improved ventilation, and other strategies.
In other federal efforts to ensure all students continue to have access to education during the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently opened a public comment period for allocating the $7.2 billion in emergency funding for E-rate in the American Rescue Plan—a longstanding All4Ed priority we covered in the last Federal Flash. These funds will be used to close the homework gap affecting 17 million students by increasing access to the E-rate program and providing millions of students with high-speed home internet and devices necessary for remote learning. The FCC is seeking comments by April 5 at http://www.fcc.gov/ecfs.
Finally, the Senate held a confirmation hearing this week for President Biden’s pick for deputy secretary of education, Cindy Marten, who currently serves as the superintendent for San Diego (California) Unified School District. Despite some tough questions from senators on the committee, Marten appears to have emerged from the hearing likely to win bipartisan support for confirmation. We’ll keep you posted.
This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the March 26 episode of Federal Flash, All4Ed’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anne Hyslop is assistant director for policy development and government relations and Ziyu Zhou is a policy analyst at All4Ed.