At 1:30pm ET today, Whip Steve Scalise, Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, and Reps. Ashley Hinson and Brad Wenstrup will lead a call with 100+ parent leaders in the school reopening movement to bring together voices — Republicans, Democrats, Independents – to hear directly from families on how we can continue to work together to safely reopen our schools around the country.
Ahead of this conversation, we wanted to provide some perspective from a few states that already decided to safely open their schools as we continue to advocate for doing so at a larger scale.
We spoke with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ team, as well as Alex Kelly, Chief of Staff of the Florida Department of Education. In November, Florida issued a requirement that all school districts and charter boards keep schools open five days a week in the spring of 2021, and a law that went into effect on Feb. 15 in Iowa also requires districts to offer in-person learning five days a week.
Florida and Iowa knew getting this done and keeping everyone happy would be difficult — and it was. But nothing outweighed the singular most important driver of these decisions: the health and education of the children, and the safety of teachers. At the state level, neither jurisdiction forces kids to attend in-person learning, but rather gives districts the tools, resources, and confidence to safely offer in-person learning and also offers families the flexibility and choice to still opt for virtual learning.
“Funding flexibility, operational flexibility, and flexibility for parent choice,” Mr. Kelly said, are the tools “we have to give school districts to [accommodate] families who for unique reasons need to continue to stay home.” Schools and families are allowed to stay home or go in “as long as it’s driven by parent choice.”
Florida, among other measures, looked hard at the demographics, challenges, and experiences of the students in its state, and continues to find that being in a clean, controlled classroom is a safer place for kids to be than most others. Then, by employing a “dimmer switch” approach, schools confidently reopened, piece by piece.
For example, Mr. Kelly told us that 72% of Florida students rely on school for at least one, sometimes two meals a day. Then factor in that 63% of Florida families cannot telework. Then factor in that 63% are already economically disadvantaged. The education department used this, in part, to show the importance of investing in safe school reopenings. The ripple effect of having kids stay at home would be far more damaging in the long run.
Similarly in Iowa, Gov. Reynolds’ thinking behind a recently passed bill was that if a family has the ability to choose a 100% online learning option, they should also have the option to choose 100% in-person learning for their child. This flexibility is especially helpful for those families who are struggling to balance working from home or going into work while also needing to watch their kids at home.
A majority of Iowa schools have been open for in-person learning in some capacity since August, but larger and more urban districts had not been offering a 100% in-person option. Gov. Reynolds emphasized the importance of not letting their kids continue to fall behind educationally, but also stressed the many other mental health benefits of in-person learning, as well as the health services in-person instruction provides. Iowa didn’t get rid of the online learning or hybrid options by any means — they are simply allowing parents to make the decisions on what is best for them and their families.
Iowa and Florida alike continue to ensure districts are able to get the PPE and other protective measures they need to open safely, and encourage districts to work closely and be in consultation with their local health offices to ensure they’re following the relevant safety measures. In Florida, for example, the goal was to, in part through CARES funding and other funding streams, leave schools with no reason not to offer in-person learning. Need a new HVAC system? The funding is there. In Iowa, in the same vein, Gov. Reynolds relaxed regulatory rules regarding substitute teaching, so if a teacher needs to quarantine, there is a substitute option readily available.
Both states emphasize providing flexibility to the parents, students, districts, and schools to ensure things run smoothly. While the state will do its best to provide resources and safety measures, it is imperative that the final decision on in-person versus online rests with the parent and families.
But that’s not without its challenges. Florida needed to initially create buy-in from its schools to offer in-person learning five days a week due to the possibility that less kids would enroll, therefore threatening their funding.
“We needed to get financial security to those schools where parents decide to keep their kids at home. Those schools will still get funding even if the number of students they’re serving has dropped,” Mr. Kelly said. With that concern taken care of, the department could then move to convincing others hesitant to engage in in-person learning that Florida’s kids being home wasn’t necessarily safer, and that the data has been right all along — transmission rates are low amongst kids and in the classroom. Subsequent studies continue to back this up.
On top of keeping the K-12 schools open, Florida also sought to keep their technical schools available for in-person instruction, since thousands of graduates of these programs become first responders, nurses, law enforcement officers, or other essential positions. Avoiding disruption to this talent line continues to be necessary for the state’s pandemic recovery.
Keeping the technical schools open also gave Florida a lot of clear evidence and data that proved they can open their other schools and programs safely. “We have to drive [school districts] towards best behaviors with funding incentives and flexibilities instead of just telling them what to do,” Mr. Kelly said. That also demonstrated the state’s commitment to helping the districts.
At the end of the day, officials in Florida and Iowa saw the data — on transmission in schools, national data showing that less than 10% of coronavirus cases have been among school aged children (ages 5–17), weighing the percentage of parents who can telework, the households that don’t have access to Wi-Fi, the percentage of kids with disabilities or special needs who especially rely on in-person instruction, kids who rely on school for meals, and a whole trove of other variables both nationally and unique to their state. They’ve proven that with the appropriate measures in place, like masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene, in-person learning is not only possible, but necessary. This should encourage schools in other states to do the same, and then confidently push for safe opportunities and flexibility for parents and families.
Plus, as Florida and Iowa have experienced and a recent national poll reflects, most teachers who returned to the classroom are happy and comfortable with the conditions, and more importantly want to be in the classroom providing the best education possible for their kids.
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