‘We prioritized open bars before giving resources to schools’: How the U.S. coronavirus response has failed students and teachers

For all the rhetoric about the importance of in-person learning for K–12 students, policymakers have failed to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on education and provide the necessary funding to state and local governments to make it safe to do so.

That was the resounding message among key educators, researchers, and labor leaders the Economic Policy Institute convened to discuss what needs to be done to limit damage to student performance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We prioritized open bars before giving resources to schools,” said Elaine Weiss, an EPI research associate who was a panelist at the webinar and is co-author of a new report, COVID-19 and Student Performance, Equity, and U.S. Education Policy.

The report outlines a three-pronged plan for schools and the U.S. education system: immediate relief, short-term recovery, and long-term rebuilding.

The panel also included:

  • Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
  • Emma García, economist at EPI
  • Ivey Welshans, teacher at Middle Years Alternative School in Philadelphia

EPI president Thea Lee was the moderator and asked each panelist: “What would you tell Congress are the consequences of not acting right now to give the resources that are needed for state and local governments? What does that mean for students, for inequality, and for our future?”

Here’s what they said.

Randi Weingarten: “We have a pandemic, but the experts have told us what we require to actually open schools and to do these things, and that money isn’t there. We are seeing 20% budget cuts when we actually need 20% increases…It is this incredible sign of disrespect, and [shows] how kids—particularly Black and brown kids and kids in rural and city areas—are just not a priority. This time teachers can’t do it all. We actually need the resources. And the most obnoxious thing I saw in our poll this week, which was completely obvious to us, is that 9 out of 10 teachers are buying their own PPE and are already buying the PPE for their kids.”

Ivey Welshans: “With this pandemic, we do not have the resources to be able to make sure our students are safe. I have multiple students that I have not seen virtually or physically since March 13 and they’re still on our roll. For teachers across the United States, this is very common. These numbers far exceed what anyone would deem acceptable. The first thing that we need to worry about is the safety of our students. The next thing is there has always been a very huge divide in funding and resources between the haves and the have-nots. What wealthier school districts can provide looks very different from something in an urban setting or in a very rural setting. If the pandemic has done nothing else, it has glaringly shown the disparities between urban and rural and other districts that we’ve been dealing with for years.”

Elaine Weiss: “If we want to understand what the economic consequences are going to be from this totally catastrophic lack of leadership, let’s start with how many more kids are going to get retained in grade. Let’s go on to how many more kids are going to need incredibly expensive remedial education that they should not have to have but are now going to need. Then, let’s go on to the economic disaster associated with how many more students are, as we speak, becoming disengaged from school and will end up dropping out as a result of this. Let’s cap that off with how many kids will now not go to college because we prioritized open bars before giving resources to schools.”

Emma García: “While it’s critical that we have resources to ensure safety associated with the pandemic, the disinvestments are not a new thing in education policy. They have been with us for years, for decades. From [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities], we know that still about half of the states are spending less per student than they were prior to the prior recession. This was not built up overnight, this is a problem that has been building for years.”