Q: I keep hearing about President Biden’s pledge to reopen K-12 schools within 100 days. We’re already open and have been all year. Does this just mean he wants more virtual learners back in the classroom?
A: Yes. President Biden has asked Congress to authorize nearly $170 billion to help schools and colleges reopen quickly and safely. This amount far surpasses the $67.5 billion in COVID-19-related educational aid Congress previously passed in March and December 2020. While negotiations continue in Washington regarding the size and mechanics of the overall relief package, President Biden anticipates that Congressional Democrats will attempt to pass legislation in a couple of weeks designed to return more students to the classroom.
On January 14, 2021, then President-elect Biden revealed his American Rescue Plan (the Plan), an emergency $1.9 trillion federal spending package aimed to boost the public health response to the COVID-19 crisis and to repair and revitalize the national economy. Among several other proposals (i.e., the federal government sending qualifying citizens additional $1,400 stimulus checks, etc.), the Plan asks Congress to authorize $170 billion to assist schools and colleges so that they might “reopen” quickly and safely.
More specifically, the Plan asks Congress to approve $130 billion to help return K-12 students and teachers to on-campus, in-person instruction by allowing school districts to reduce class sizes, modify school and classroom spaces, and increase transportation capacities. The intended consequence is that teachers and students may better practice social distancing and avoid loss of learning attributable to remote education and technology inequities. The Plan is also intended to promote safety on campus by providing enough funding for increased COVID testing and for schools to develop and implement vaccination plans for personnel. Similarly, the Plan allocates funding so that districts may employ more school nurses, counselors, and custodial staff to better address students’ emotional and physical health needs in addition to their academic needs. Student and teacher safety on campus is further prioritized in the Plan with funding that is earmarked so that schools can create smaller classes, improve ventilation systems, provide more personal protective equipment (PPE), expand community schools, operate summer schools, and cover other additional costs as needed to ensure safe, on-campus instruction. Notably, the Plan also asks Congress to authorize the ability for school districts to access and seek reimbursement from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Fund resources for certain COVID-19-related expenses.
President Biden estimated on Monday, January 25, 2021, that negotiations regarding a new COVID-19 relief bill, which is shaped by his Plan, could take “a couple of weeks” as our nation’s leaders debate the size and mechanics of the spending package. If the Plan fails to reach bipartisan support, Democratic leaders in Congress might likely move forward and attempt to pass legislation with their simple majority. As a reference point, Congress enacted the CARES Act in March 2020, which provided approximately $13.2 billion in COVID-19-related relief to K-12 schools. Then, in December 2020, Congress authorized an additional $54.3 billion for school districts to use to improve school facilities, purchase education technology, and help address learning loss as a result of the pandemic.
Information related to the American Rescue Plan is quickly evolving. Presidential announcements and updates regarding the Plan may be accessed via the White House website at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/. Please contact your local school attorney if you seek additional information or have specific questions regarding school reopening.