At HELP Committee hearing, Senator Murray pressed K-12 education leaders on their plans to address growing inequity and keep schools safe
Senator Murray calls for more federal funding as schools face enormous budget cuts
Senator Murray: “…whether schools are able to open physically, operate virtually, or use a hybrid of both—we have to ensure school districts deliver quality and equitable educational, social, emotional, and health, including mental health, services to students.”
***WATCH SENATOR MURRAY’S FULL OPENING REMARKS HERE***
***WATCH SENATOR MURRAY'S QUESTIONING HERE***
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, emphasized the need to address growing inequity in our education system due to COVID-19 by ensuring K-12 schools deliver high quality services to all students—whether schools open physically, remotely, or a hybrid of both.
At a HELP Committee hearing, Senator Murray highlighted the disparities in learning loss amid abrupt school closures, and urged K-12 education leaders to consider the unique needs of Black students, students of color, students from families with low-incomes, LGBTQIA+ students, students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care, English learners, migrant students, and students with disabilities, as they make plans for the upcoming school year. Senator Murray also pushed for federal funding in order to help schools provide much-needed services—such as rigorous distance learning—and to address massive cuts in state and local budgets.
“But whether schools are able to open physically, operate virtually, or use a hybrid of both—we have to ensure school districts deliver quality and equitable educational, social, emotional, and health, including mental health, services to students. And we have to address the ways this virus has further exacerbated inequities that have long existed within our education system,” said Senator Murray in her opening remarks.
“When it comes to delivering these services and supports, we have to do better. Because if we don’t, the achievement gap—that we strive to close—will undoubtedly widen. We can’t let that happen. To address all of these problems, we need a massive investment in our schools right now,” Senator Murray continued.
In her remarks and in questions to witnesses Dr. John King, former Secretary of Education under President Obama, Dr. Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Dr. Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska Commissioner of Education, and Ms. Susana Cordova, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Senator Murray also stressed the need for in-depth federal guidance to help schools implement public health protocols—not only to protect the health of students, but also to protect the health of at-risk educators, as well the community at large.
Senator Murray’s full remarks are below.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman—and I appreciate our witnesses being here today. As always, thank you to our Committee staff who worked so hard to make it possible for this hearing to be safe and socially distant.
“Before we begin, I just want to say how inspired I am by the young people protesting against police brutality and systemic racism nationwide. They are calling for change, accountability, and justice—and I hope their urgency and resolve will be an example to all of us here in Congress.
“Now we’re here today to discuss something else this country owes all young people and children—and that is a quality public education, even in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has upended schools in ways that are truly unprecedented—creating chaos for educators and support staff, parents, and of course students.
“As this crisis was first hitting my home state of Washington, I got a text from my daughter telling me that the Northshore school district in Washington state had closed. My daughter didn’t know what to do, who was going to take care of her kids when she still had to go to work, or what this meant for their learning.
“And even as a United States Senator, I didn’t have any answers for her.
“It wasn’t long before nearly every school district, every educator, every parent, and every student in this country had many of the same questions. The challenges schools and families across this country have had to overcome this past school year were unimaginable a matter of months ago.
“Schools and school districts are now facing some of the biggest cuts to state and local revenue that we have seen in a long time, while facing increased costs as a result of the pandemic.
“And it is especially important to recognize that while this hasn’t been easy for anyone—school districts, communities, and families with more resources have had more capacity to adapt than those who have less.
“So as we discuss ways to reopen schools safely for students, educators and school staff, our response
must not only ensure public health and science is driving decision-making, but also, ensure every child can access a high-quality public education during this pandemic, whether in-person or online.
“We know that COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on the health of Black communities and communities of color. And research is already showing how it has exacerbated the inequities that existed in our education system before the pandemic struck.
“Data projects that Black students could lose over ten months of learning; and Latino students could lose over nine months of learning, compared to White students who are projected to lose six months of learning. Because of this, estimates show achievement gaps could grow by fifteen to twenty percent in this country.
“We can’t let COVID-19 continue to make things worse when it comes to the education of students of color. And the same goes for students from families with low-incomes, LGBTQIA+ students, students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care, English learners and migrant students, and students with disabilities.
“When it comes to reopening buildings safely—as I’ve said before and cannot say enough—schools and school districts must follow the advice of local public health officials and let science drive decision-making.
“At a minimum, public health experts say, before reopening classrooms, states should be able to provide widespread testing, and contact tracing to follow up in every single case of the virus. The federal government should also start planning now for the distribution of a safe and effective vaccine—which will be critical for schools ultimately returning to normal.
“But until we have a safe and effective vaccine, I’m glad to see many states and school leaders are engaged in detailed scenario planning.
“Because before families send their children back to the classroom and educators return to teach, they need to know that schools have thought through every possible scenario. And given how much we don’t know about how children transmit this disease—we need to look at how safe it is for medically vulnerable parents and guardians to send their kids back to school.
“There are countless questions schools must answer before they can physically open safely. But school districts and schools can’t do this alone.
“They need in-depth, actionable guidance from the federal government on best practices to ensure the safety of students, educators, school staff and the broader community.
“They need additional resources to measure and address learning loss among their students, to implement public health protocols to protect students and staff, and to offset dramatic declines in state and local revenue.
“But whether schools are able to open physically, operate virtually, or use a hybrid of both—we have to ensure school districts deliver quality and equitable educational, social, emotional, and health, including mental health, services to students. And we have to address the ways this virus has further exacerbated inequities that have long existed within our education system.
“I recently heard from a mom in Yakima, Washington who told me that her children are sharing one iPhone to learn. And she’s not even sure if she’ll be able to afford the phone bill. That’s just one example of the digital divide.
“For school districts that are under-resourced or in areas without internet access, ‘distance learning’ may just consist of a few links to online materials.
“For the over 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness across the country, finding transportation to pick up school meals is not always an option.
“And for the students across the country experiencing trauma and stress—to say the least—from this pandemic or reckoning with centuries-long racism, it has never been more important to ensure every child has access to mental health and trauma services and supports—particularly students from communities bearing the brunt of this virus and those affected by police brutality and systemic racism.
“When it comes to delivering these services and supports, we have to do better. Because if we don’t, the achievement gap—that we strive to close—will undoubtedly widen. We can’t let that happen.
“To address all of these problems, we need a massive investment in our schools right now.
“The American Federation of Teachers has estimated that schools will need billions more—on top of what we already know is needed—for basic things like cleaning supplies and PPE.
“And we also know—thanks to the work of the National Education Association—without a significant investment, the U.S. could lose approximately 1.9 million educator jobs.
“We should have begun negotiations on this and countless other COVID-19 priorities weeks ago. I’m extremely frustrated that hasn’t happened yet and I will continue to push for action.
“And I also want to note that while I’m glad we have the opportunity to hear from the witnesses today, we need to hear from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, especially about her efforts to push her privatization agenda in the K-12 system and her flawed interpretation of the equitable services provision in the CARES Act.
“As we all know, K-12 public schools are truly the bedrock of our communities. Each of us here and at the U.S. Department of Education need to be all-in on ensuring schools have the resources and support to rise to the massive challenge in front of them.
“I know I am—and I look forward to our conversation today.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”