Classrooms with poor ventilation, busted light bulbs, and limited space for social distancing. Broken pipes, bad internet connections, and teachers with no personal protective gear.
These are some of the problems in American education that could be fixed as part of Covid-19 relief funding, say three advocates of focusing pandemic relief on infrastructure improvements in public schools.
U.S. Representative Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi 2nd), Laura Jimenez of the Center for American Progress, and Mary Filardo of the 21st Century Schools Fund were part of a roundtable discussion about federal infrastructure funding. The July 10 panel was moderated by the Rural Assembly and the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative.
Thompson said funding from the $1.5 trillion infrastructure package called the Moving Forward Act should prioritize communities with persistent poverty and those that have been historically underserved.
“They should get catch-up money for those years of being underserved,” said Thompson, who, on July 2, voted to pass legislation.
Thompson said internet access is another priority. Nearly two-thirds of the schools in his congressional district lack adequate internet access.
“Virtual learning is nonexistent,” he said.
The Moving Forward Act aims to invest $100 billion to deliver affordable high-speed broadband internet access to all parts of the country.
For Jimenez, director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, an effective way to track schools with infrastructure needs is to create a public record. The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan policy group dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans.
“We’ve got to establish a national database to collect and report information on the condition of all public schools desegregated by student population groups, by socioeconomic status, and by geography,” Jimenez said.
She also said there needs to be permanent federal funding for school infrastructure at a rate commensurate to funding that supports educational programming.
On July 12, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced backlash after admitting on multiple morning news shows that the Trump administration has no plan for the safe and secure return of students this fall. The wave of criticism came as the secretary lent her support to the president on reopening schools amid the brewing tension between policymakers, advocates, teachers, and parents.
For Thompson, the concern stems from the logistics of moving children from their homes to the classrooms, and back home again — all while complying with the pandemic safety standards of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“These districts are struggling with infrastructure, in terms of the physical facilities,” he said. “A majority of these districts use busing.”
The congressman projected that his district will have to triple their school bus routes to pick up children to adhere to the six-feet-apart requirement.
“The next problem comes when they get to the classroom that’s already overcrowded,” he said. “Compounded with that, we don’t have enough qualified teachers to teach a smaller class size.”
Filardo, executive director and founder of the 21st Century School Fund and coordinator of the National Council on School Facilities, said a solution is to create a separate fund that focuses on education needs.
“We think that there’s an opportunity, certainly a need to get some emergency public school facility repair and renewal dollars into the highest poverty school districts,” she said. “If they [children] are in a high poverty community, they are far more likely to be returning to a school that’s in poor condition.”
Filardo described a rural Virginia school system that has to use buckets to catch water from the leaking ceiling.
“There’s a lot of problems with implementing the mitigation measures if you are in basically poor conditions,” she said. “In some cases, not even sinks are operable,” she noted, raising questions on how students and teachers are expected to wash their hands.
As coronavirus deaths rise, teachers are more concerned about school reopening mainly due to the lack of guidance from school districts, state officials, the CDC, and the president. Many educators are weighing the risks to their students, colleagues, themselves, and their families.
A roundtable attendee, Deborah Thomas, said leaders should remember that schools can play a big role in the economies in rural areas.
“In many small communities, the school is the economic driver,” said Thomas, Alabama state coordinator of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative.
“It’s the reason the diner can stay open because people eat there on their way to work. It’s the reason the gas station can be open. It’s the biggest employer in the county, and so, if those buildings are thriving, then the community is more likely to be successful. And it really is an economic hub.”