Reopen schools or risk losing this generation of American children

The following op-ed appeared at on July 9, 2020.

Millions of Americans dutifully pay taxes with the promise that their children can get a first-rate education in the United States. The right to a publicly-funded education is an integral part of our social contract—it means any child can grow up to follow their dreams.

If we fail to reopen our schools in the fall, we will fail to deliver on that promise for the 55 million students who depend on our public school system. We are at risk of having an entire generation of children fall permanently behind. If that happens, our children’s futures will be the biggest casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve introduced the Reopen Our Schools Act in Congress to incentivize schools to reopen for in-person learning in the Fall. As outlined in the legislation, if a school refuses to reopen, they must apply for a waiver from the Department of Education and risk losing federal funding. My goal is to encourage schools to come up with a plan to safely reopen by September 8th. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to agree with the premise of my bill, and President Trump has announced he’s considering using his executive power to block federal funding for schools who fail to reopen.

We know that remote learning isn’t working. A recent study found students made little to no progress in their studies from the point when schools shut down. According to new projections, children are expected to return to school in the fall with less than 70% of learning gains in reading and 37-50% gains in math relative to a typical school year. Compounded with the typical “summer slide,” where children can lose up 20% of school-year gains in reading and 27% of school-year gains in math, we are at risk of having some of our children start in the Fall half a grade or even a whole grade behind!

As I’ve spoken with teachers across northeast Indiana, their personal experiences back up the data. Teachers across the country seem to echo their concerns. According to a new USA Today/Ipsos poll, three-quarters of teachers say distance learning is causing students to fall behind. By a six to one margin, teachers say they are worried about their students, and half of teachers are “very” worried.

Of course, this virus, like most calamities, is disproportionately hurting the disadvantaged. Schools don’t have enough computers to hand out. Even if they did, children from rural or less affluent families may not have internet access or a broadband network in their area—a phenomenon some call the “digital divide.” The Purdue Center for Regional Development conducted a study in Indiana, in which 25% of respondents said they rely on cellular data or satellites for internet access. EducationSuperHighway estimates 20% of students nationwide don’t have access to the technology they need for remote learning. In an effort to address this inequality, some schools have resorted to busing kids to and from public Wi-Fi hotspots. Solutions like this are not good enough. One mother told the Wall Street Journal remote learning, “failed because of a lack of imagination, and a lack of effort.” It’s no wonder less affluent families are much more likely than their affluent counterparts to send their kids back to school when they reopen.

Closing our schools hurts our children, first and foremost. But there are larger societal consequences as well. First, the obvious: If children aren’t physically in school, parents that rely on in-person learning can’t go to work. More than half of Hoosier children live in a household where both parents work, and the highest proportion of such families live in rural and suburban areas. Keeping schools closed hurts working families, and if parents can’t return to work, there will be sweeping economic repercussions in our state.

And as I pointed out previously, children are losing learning gains in math faster than reading. Long before the pandemic, we were already in a STEM crisis, as described by both President Obama and President Trump. Falling behind in STEM has broad societal implications, especially implications for our national security and our global competition with China. In 2018, the U.S. ranked 36th out 79 geographic areas in math scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment; the top-ranked regions are four provinces in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang). China’s not waiting for a vaccine to reopen. Students in Wuhan, ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic, went back to school in May. Unless we want to live in a world dominated by a hegemonic China, we need to fix our STEM crisis, not exacerbate it by keeping our schools closed.

In the competitive global economy, there will be serious consequences to allowing an entire generation of American kids to fall behind. For their sake and for ours, we must reopen our schools.

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