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A Call to Protect the Health and Safety of Our Education Community

Student and teachers wearing masks in the classroomThis moment in time is anything but typical. As the beginning of the school year nears and the pandemic surges, we are left wondering, what will our classrooms look like this fall? Preparing to return to school will look different for parents, students, and educators alike. And if the Trump administration has its way, all schools and universities will be forced to reopen with in-person education.

Determined to open schools despite the surge in COVID-19 cases, President Trump threatens to withhold federal funds as a means to force schools and universities into on campus, in-person education. His statement in early July was issued when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had yet to release updated guidance on how to safely reopen schools. In fact, the revised guidelines weren’t released until July 23—leaving schools only weeks to prepare for what will undoubtably be a monumental challenge.

Federal funds must not be used as leverage to force schools and universities to provide in-person classes amidst the current surge of the coronavirus. Instead, federal funds should be allocated to aid colleges and universities in their recovery from the significant, financial challenges caused by the pandemic, to equip institutions with the proper tools to reduce the spread of coronavirus on their campuses, and to provide liability protection.

Prematurely opening our schools will not only harm our students and educators, but also our entire educational system. As such, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) strongly opposes President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s efforts to force schools and universities to open. Preserving the health and safety of students and educators during COVID-19 is essential to effective teaching and learning.

The Trump administration has directed state and local governments to bear the responsibility for developing and implementing policies and practices to protect their citizens during this pandemic.

Secretary DeVos stated, “Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen. Simply a matter of how.” She added, “They must fully open and they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.” By putting the onus of opening schools squarely on the educational system, institutions must be allowed to implement feasible and practical reopening measures tailored to the needs of their local communities. A “one size fits all” approach is reckless—especially in areas of the country where COVID-19 cases are rising, and transmission rates are increasing. While some states intend to resume in-class instruction this fall, others state they will either have a hybrid schedule of in-class and remote learning or begin the year completely online.

The education community must come together and address the pressing issue of how to provide a safe, equitable, and effective education for all students with or without the support of the federal government.  A recent study by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a nonprofit education research organization, highlights the academic impact the pandemic has had on students. Preliminary results suggest that students returning to classrooms this fall, whether online or in-person, will have learning gains of only 70% in reading and less than 50% in math compared to a typical school year. Our disadvantaged students are falling even further behind, due primarily to inequitable access to computers and the internet. Collectively, we must address how our colleges, universities, and teacher candidates can help school districts in impoverished communities overcome the digital divide while keeping students safe.

AACTE calls upon our nation to protect the health and well-being of those most vulnerable in our communities and to implement bipartisan efforts that will strengthen school safety plans.

The countdown to classroom time has begun. The question remaining is, how do we ensure that our students and educators remain safe in an equitable and effective learning environment, whether in-person or online?

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Lynn M. Gangone

President and CEO, AACTE