Robert Runcie: Coronavirus relief – why schools must be the heart of next stimulus package

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The coronavirus has decimated our economy. As a nation, we’ve lost more jobs in the past month than we added in the decade of recovery and growth after the Great Recession.

Nearly every segment of the economy in Florida has been shut down. Analysts expect the state to lose at least 20 percent of projected revenue this fiscal year. The loss could be even greater if Disney, Universal, the cruise lines and the rest of our tourism industry remain shuttered. Florida is not alone. States across the country are in dire straits.

Those of us who lead school systems are bracing for massive cuts, as education is often the largest share of state and local budgets. But America must remember: What we do to our schools, we do to our future.

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If we don’t protect education during this crisis, who will we be when it is over?

I am the superintendent of Broward County Public Schools. With 271,000 students and 34,000 employees, we are the sixth-largest district in the nation and the biggest employer in our area. Over the past two weeks, I have told our community, which is already struggling to cope with the pandemic, that we must prepare for things to get even more challenging.

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We are doing all we can to save money. Our district has implemented staffing caps and a hiring freeze; halted all discretionary spending; and is renegotiating contracts, reducing overtime and travel, and exploring Medicaid reimbursement for mental health supports and services for children with special needs that must now be provided outside of school buildings.

Superintendents everywhere are taking similar steps. Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders of which I serve on the board, recently released “Schools and COVID-19,” a digital report that explains what systems are doing in five key areas: students’ basic needs, technology, distance learning, support for high school seniors, and the economic impact.

Given the tremendous challenges of the moment, and the untold millions in unforeseen expenses, my fellow chiefs and I are deeply concerned that the federal stimulus funding provided to date is woefully insufficient.

The disruption caused by school closures has a significant, negative impact on students — and that will continue even after children return to school. 

In 2009, lawmakers approved approximately $100 billion to help education systems deal with the effects of the Great Recession. Although today’s crisis far exceeds anything the country has experienced in our lifetimes, the recently approved Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes $30.75 billion for education. And that is for both higher education and K-12. When you break it down even further, elementary, middle and high schools will get $13.5 billion to support students now and plan for educational recovery going forward.

For weeks, 56 million children have been out of school, and we still don’t know when it will be safe to reopen our buildings. The disruption caused by school closures has a significant, negative impact on students — and that will continue even after children return to school.

The longer the crisis goes on, the greater their needs are likely to be. Education systems need significant federal resources to:

  • Support distance learning now and close the digital divide once and for all;  
  • Pay for counselors, nurses and mental health services to meet students’ extensive and varied needs resulting from and exacerbated by the pandemic;   
  • Provide robust extended learning opportunities and other interventions to get students back on track; and 
  • Cover anticipated gaps in funding for school infrastructure.   

In addition, systems need payroll tax credits to help offset the cost of newly mandated emergency family and paid sick leave for employees.

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This crisis has changed our lives and created immense strain in every sector. But we cannot ignore one fundamental truth: What we are able to achieve as a people is directly tied to how well we educate our children.

Schools must be at the heart of the next stimulus package. If we forsake our students now, we renounce the promise of our country for generations.

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