What will it take to safely reopen schools? President-elect Joe Biden is betting at least $130 billion.
As part of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal, Biden is urging Congress to provide $170 billion to educational institutions, including $130 billion to assist K-12 schools in reopening safely and $35 billion to public colleges and universities as well as Minority Serving Institutions, like Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Another $5 billion would go to state governors to spend as they wish on education programs and other needs for students of any age “significantly impacted by COVID-19,” according to the Biden proposal.
Administrators, teachers, students and families have been calling on the federal government for months to provide more funding to schools so they can adequately cope with the challenges of educating students during the pandemic and in the case of colleges, threats to their existence.
The obstacles COVID-19 has posed to safely returning students to elementary and high school classrooms in-person have cost families as well as the nation. It’s also exacerbated already wide gaps in access to educational opportunity.
And colleges, many of which were already operating on stretched business models, are likely to face cuts to their funding as a result of the economic downturn. That puts college students at risk of facing tuition increases, after a year in which we saw staggering drops in college enrollment, amid the challenges of affording and attending college during a public health and economic crisis.
One question not answered in the education relief proposal: What will Biden do about the nation’s student-loan borrowers and their debt? Though he discussed cancelling some student-loan debt on the campaign trail, that’s not in this proposal.
Here’s a look at what’s in the proposed package.
Funds to reopen K-12 schools within the first 100 days
The $900 billion stimulus package Congress passed in December — which Biden has described as a “down payment” — provided $54 billion to K-12 schools that they can use on a variety of priorities, ranging from supplies to clean school buildings to after-school programs.
On Thursday, Biden urged Congress to add $130 billion to that pot as part of his goal to safely open a majority of K-8 schools by the end of his administration’s first 100 days. The Council of Chief State School Officers said in June that to reopen safely for a full academic year would require between $158 and $244 billion.
“This moment is very challenging for schools,” said Michael Leachman, vice president for state and fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank focused on the impact of budget and tax issues on inequality and poverty.
“The cost of educating children safely is very significant and obviously, unexpected, because nobody guessed that there would be a pandemic. Then in the last several months, it’s become clear that because of the challenges of trying to accomplish that there’s been a disturbing amount of learning loss.”
That, combined with the likelihood that state budgets will be squeezed by the pandemic, putting a major source of school funding at risk, means, “it’s really important for the federal government to step up and help,” Leachman said.
Under Biden’s proposal, schools would have flexibility in how they use the funds. Some examples provided by the Biden transition team include devoting the money to reducing class sizes to allow for more social distancing, hiring more custodians and retrofitting buildings to improve ventilation.
In his quest to reopen schools, Biden likely has a willing partner in Miguel Cardona, who he’s tapped to be Secretary of Education. As Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, Cardona expressed his support for schools to re-open in person — highlighting the particular challenges remote instruction had created for English language learners, students with disabilities and students who qualify for reduced-priced or free lunch.
Indeed, the conditions of the pandemic have made a working computer, stable internet connection and a home life with few disruptions a requirement for success in school. That has exacerbated already existing gulfs in educational opportunity between low-income students and students of color and their white and wealthier peers.
As part of his relief bill, Biden is proposing to include provisions that would require states to protect students hit hardest by COVID-19, though the details on how that would be accomplished still aren’t clear.
One way to ensure schools serving low-income students get the resources they need would be to follow the same formula the government uses to distribute Title I funds — the money the federal government provides to schools serving low-income students, Leachman said. That’s how the funds in the CARES Act and the end of year relief package were distributed, he added.
The federal government could also require that in order for states to receive the funds, they’d need to guarantee that they wouldn’t slash funding to schools serving low-income students, Leachman said.
“You take the federal aid and then cut state aid, we don’t want that to happen,” he said.
Expanding testing and vaccination capabilities
A key part of the plan Biden announced Thursday is to expand vaccination and testing capabilities. The relief proposal frames these efforts as crucial to reopening schools. Though there isn’t much detail on how the testing and vaccination campaigns would be applied specifically to schools and students, there is some research to indicate how these tools can work in getting students back to classrooms in person.
“There are different levels of testing that can be useful in different ways,” said Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor in the department of population health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “The more you test, the more you can accomplish through testing.”
At a relatively low level of testing, say once per month, the tests offer a measure of surveillance, essentially providing quality control for other steps that serve as a “first line of defense” to mitigate COVID spread in schools, said Bershteyn, who has studied the New York City school system’s testing efforts. Those steps include widespread mask wearing, social distancing, frequent hand washing and other measures.
To actually prevent an outbreak, schools would need to test their entire population more than once a month, she said. To prevent an infectious person from actually showing up to an elementary or high school, K-12 schools would have to start testing at least once or twice a week, similar to what some universities — with their own labs and leading scientists — are doing, Bershteyn said. “That would be very challenging for schools to accomplish,” she said.
Money to public colleges and Minority Serving Institutions
As part of his plan, Biden is urging Congress to provide $35 billion to public higher education institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That’s in addition to the $23 billion Congress sent colleges and universities as part of the stimulus bill lawmakers passed in December.
There are also aspects of Biden’s proposal that aren’t specifically earmarked as higher education relief, but that would help colleges and their students, said Dominique Baker, an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. Those include extending the moratorium on evictions and increasing unemployment insurance, she said.
Many schools have set up emergency relief funds for students during the pandemic and it’s often the case that schools are sending that money to students to cover basic needs, “so they can actually be able to pay for school or be able to pay attention in school,” Baker said. Indeed, the public health and economic crises of the past several months pushed fewer students to enroll in college last year.
Biden’s proposal appears to at least be a start to meeting those vast challenges, Baker said. The scale of the proposed funding and “also the wide ranging nature of the plan, would seem to be appropriate,” she said.
Still, it’s hard to say if it will be enough. The American Council on Education, a higher education lobbying organization, has said that colleges and universities need at least $120 billion “just to begin” to help students and families and cope with the financial challenges created by the pandemic.
The past several months have squeezed colleges’ business models, which were already stretched. With less revenue from housing, hosting conferences and events, tuition and other sources, some schools are facing existential threats. In addition, declining state coffers as a result of the economic downturn mean that public colleges will likely face cuts to state funding over the next several years.
Biden said Thursday that as part of his proposed plan, state and local government funding would supplement the money going to schools. Knowing more about those details is critical to understanding how colleges will fare going forward, Baker said. But perhaps most crucially, it’s “we just don’t know what next year is going to look like,” she said.
Private colleges aren’t included in plans for higher education relief
One demographic left out of Biden’s proposals on higher education relief: private schools. That seems in line with some of what Biden discussed on the campaign trail, a free-college program focused on public schools, Baker said. Still, Baker added that she’s genuinely curious about the incoming administration’s approach to private colleges.
“What do they see the federal government’s role in this recovery process in working with private institutions?” Baker said. “Are they saying the last bill that passed through congress was enough for them?”
What’s missing: Student debt proposal
Noticeably absent from Biden’s plan to provide economic relief was any mention of student-loan debt. Though it wasn’t part of the relief proposal announced Thursday, the transition team indicated last week that Biden supports Congress cancelling $10,000 in student debt per borrower.
That falls short of what many advocates and mainstream democrats have been urging the President-elect to do. In September, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer called on the next president to use his authority to immediately cancel up to $50,000 in student debt. Some activists have called for the administration to go even further and cancel it all.
Even if Congress were to move forward with Biden’s cancellation plan, some borrowers may not be eligible for relief. The coronavirus-era pause on student loan payments and collections has been limited to borrowers with federally-held student loans. That means that borrowers with private student loans don’t qualify for relief. In addition, the estimated 9 million borrowers with federal student loans that are held by banks or guarantee agencies aren’t eligible for the pause.
Last week, a transition official told reporters that Biden supports Congress immediately cancelling $10,000 of “federal student loan debt per person.” It’s unclear whether that would include borrowers with federal loans held by banks or guarantee agencies. The transition team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.