Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee today sent the following letter to Congressional leaders.
Dear Chair Murray, Chairman Scott, Ranking Member Burr, and Ranking Member Foxx,
On behalf of the membership of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of district and state education leaders who collectively serve more than 7 million students, I thank you for the emergency COVID relief aid that the federal government has approved to date for our nation’s schools. This is an incredibly challenging time for our students, their families, and our education systems. Chiefs for Change members and other school system leaders across the country are working hard to reopen schools—and to keep them open—so they can provide the in-person learning and face-to-face supports that students so urgently need. Additional resources are required to sustain this essential work—and we appreciate your efforts to secure more funding for our systems. I write today to share a few specific examples of how our members have used emergency relief funds allocated to date and to reiterate our request for an additional $175 billion for K-12 education.
Across our membership, there are myriad examples of how funding is being effectively applied to meet the challenges of the moment—from coordinating mass vaccination events for teachers and other school staff, to purchasing personal protective equipment, to providing academic and mental health supports, to equipping students with devices and broadband, among others. As the examples below demonstrate, investments in education are necessary in order to stem the tide of the pandemic, ensure children can learn and thrive, and fully reopen our nation’s economy.
As of February 2, the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona estimates that more than 50 percent of its staff has received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The district partnered with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health on a citywide vaccination event open to district staff as well as employees of other school systems, including the public schools that feed into the high school district, public charters, private schools, and child care centers. The event was held at four Phoenix Union campuses in different regions of the city, and more than 7,000 people attended. A second event will be held in late February to administer the second dose of the vaccine.
San Antonio Independent School District in Texas; Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma; NOLA Public Schools in New Orleans; and the state of Rhode Island are among the systems that have developed robust COVID-19 testing programs. The four systems are highlighted in recent reports published by the RAND Corporation and Mathematica, with funding from The Rockefeller Foundation, showing that regular COVID-19 testing could reduce in-school infections by 50 percent.
San Antonio, which is featured in the report by the RAND Corporation, created a partnership with a local nonprofit to provide testing on school campuses. As Superintendent Pedro Martinez said in this video recorded last month: “We have been doing tests, up to 30,000 tests now, and we have seen under a 1 percent positivity rate for both staff and for children.” This is in contrast to a positivity rate that was 20 percent or higher in the broader community. Martinez said, “We are now part of the solution” because the district is “catching asymptomatic carriers.”
The RAND Corporation notes that “early adopters [of COVID-19 testing] profiled [in the report] demonstrate that testing can be effectively integrated into schools’ COVID-19 response plans and that it helps families and staff feel comfortable participating in in-person instruction.”
The report also states that “[i]n a RAND survey of nearly 1,000 former public school teachers, almost half of those who left public school teaching early during the pandemic did so specifically because of COVID-19.… Roughly half of the teachers who quit teaching due to COVID-19 report that they would be willing to return if there were widespread vaccination or regular COVID-19 testing.”
Tulsa, New Orleans, and Rhode Island, showcased in the Mathematica report, also rolled out testing to curb the spread of the virus. Rhode Island is using BinaxNOW tests to administer voluntary, on-site testing in districts throughout the state, after a successful pilot program in communities with high-positivity rates. The state is also supporting testing events for K-12 populations. NOLA Public Schools in New Orleans is adding antigen testing to its existing school-based testing program, which includes mobile polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. To date, the district has distributed 20,000 tests to 38 school sites. Tulsa Public Schools partnered with the local county health department to test elementary school teachers. Nearly 850 teachers opted into this voluntary testing program during the pilot phase. The district plans to launch asymptomatic testing at all schools once in-person learning resumes for all grade levels. Many of the testing pilots were funded by philanthropy. Cities participating in the pilot have identified the need for comprehensive funding and end-to-end services to administer, review, and report results. As the pandemic persists, it is critical that the federal government approves additional funding so that testing and vaccination efforts can be expanded in communities across the country.
Infrastructure and Personal Protective Equipment
Stemming from CARES Act funding, the Colorado Department of Education provided a $1.4 million Safe Schools Reopening grant to Boulder Valley School District. The district purchased and installed air purifiers for classrooms, cafeterias, and libraries as well as MERV 11 air filters for building HVAC systems. The air purifiers add a supplemental layer to maintain low aerosol concentrations inside the schools. Districts across the country are also using CARES Act funds to buy masks for students and staff.
Education leaders are pursuing innovative measures to support students during this challenging time. To address the toll that the pandemic is taking on students’ and staff members’ mental health, districts and state education departments ramped up supports to connect students with much-needed resources, by staffing hotlines, promoting mobile applications, and partnering with community organizations. Our chiefs know there is no substitute for in-person instruction, but, regardless of whether classes are taking place in school buildings or online, districts are doing all they can to accelerate student learning. Across the country, systems worked with community partners to establish “learning hubs,” where a limited number of students are able to attend remote classes while being supervised by an adult in a safe environment. Guilford County Schools in North Carolina is employing high school students who are willing to become math tutors for younger students; Broward County Public Schools in Florida will extend instructional time into spring breaks and summer school, engaging students in enrichment activities and providing tutoring opportunities through schools and nonprofit partners; and in Maryland, Baltimore City Public Schools created a summer tutoring program with local college students supporting rising ninth graders and worked with partners to enlist college students to support students with their work virtually. The impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, but we cannot afford to have a “lost generation” of learners.
Nearly 17 million students across America do not have high-speed internet. The problem disproportionately affects children of color, those from low-income families, and students who are already behind in their learning. Since the start of the pandemic, we published #SendTheSignal and K-12 Connections; both reports outline innovative strategies schools are pursuing amid the pandemic to ensure students have a home internet signal so they can keep learning. COVID relief funds have proven essential in these efforts. Although schools are making strides to connect students with broadband and devices, the digital divide is too great a problem for schools to solve on their own. We ask the federal government to allocate funding and work with internet service providers and others to create a comprehensive and lasting national solution for universal broadband.
As the examples above illustrate, school systems across the country benefited immensely from emergency relief funds. While the full extent of the damage caused by the pandemic is not yet known, the consequences are likely to exceed any our nation has ever seen. K-12 systems require significant resources to continue to support students, families, and schools struggling to cope with the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19. Our members embody the resilience and ingenuity necessary to serve students during these unprecedented times. We ask that you provide them with the resources they need.
Together, we have an opportunity to support students in this moment and to build a more equitable education system for the future. Chiefs for Change pledges our partnership in the work ahead.