Congressional panel hears from educators about how to safely reopen schools

Florida Phoenix | By Ariana Figueroa | September 29, 2021

WASHINGTON — A school superintendent from a large Nevada district on Wednesday described how schools there have coped with the pandemic and returned to in-person learning, as members of Congress examined best practices for safe reopening.

Jesus Jara, superintendent of Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, told a virtual panel of the House Education and Labor Committee that the funds his school district received from the COVID-19 relief measures passed by Congress allowed schools to reopen in March.

The district also implemented summer programs for kids who experienced learning loss during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

“When the pandemic hit, our priority was to protect our students and staff,” he said in his opening statement. “We quickly discovered that many of our students did not have internet access or mobile phones.”

Jara now is drafting a vaccine mandate for school staff and teachers in his district, the fifth-largest school district in the nation. He added that the school district implemented a mask mandate and used funds to improve ventilation in classrooms.

Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, (D-Northern Mariana Islands), the chair of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, which held the hearing, said he was frustrated how large school districts like some in Florida rejected federal relief money  meant to improve schools and distance learning.

Florida has not applied for at least $2 billion in aid for schools from the federal government’s pandemic funds.

“Unfortunately, some states and school boards have chosen to play politics with these resources instead of following the science,” he said in his opening statement. “The state has one of the worst COVID infection rates in the country and its schools desperately need resources. Undermining school funding only makes it harder for students to safely return to classrooms.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson, (D-Fla.), also expressed her frustration that her state had not utilized some of the COVID-19 relief money for schools. She asked Jara how he implemented his funds and what steps he took to provide equity for Black and brown students.

Jara said that the district asked teachers and principals to do wellness checks on vulnerable students to make sure they were connecting with those children.

“We pretty much went out and into the community,” he said.

Jara added that another important issue the school district addressed was making sure that students had access to mental health assistance, as many students expressed difficulty with virtual learning for the past year.

A national  study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the NWEA, a nonprofit organization that provides academic assessments, found that student learning in grades K-12 was, on average, five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.

Jara said the summer program was crucial in helping students, particularly minority and low-income students, with catching up on mathematics and reading skills.

“The District created Lifeline, a program to assist educators and leadership to interface with and determine students’ level of need,” he said. “We instituted protocols to ensure students isolated at home could meet with school-based mental health professionals in virtual or in-person format.”

The ranking member on the panel, Burgess Owens, (R-Utah), said that the federal government should not be involved in how schools reopen and should not impose mask mandates for students.

“Parents know best how to safeguard their children’s mental and physical health,” he said, adding that children are less likely to spread COVID-19.

Denise Forte, the interim CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit research and advocacy organization that focuses on students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, said in her opening statement that her organization’s research has found that while some parents do agree that in-person learning is best, many Black and Latino parents “strongly believe it is unsafe to send their children to school without social distancing and masking, and many would opt for remote learning if it was an option.”

“That is why it is critical that districts and schools have the resources and supports to provide safe, in-person learning through adequate testing and contract tracing; building upgrades to replace faulty and out-of-date ventilation; basic public health protocols such as mandatory masking, distancing, and handwashing; and access to the COVID-19 vaccination,” she said.

“Many families of color, especially Black families, have understandable mistrust toward our public school and health care systems,” she continued. “Relational trust between school leaders, community members and parents must be foundational in efforts to not only build a strong and safe school community, but also to maximize student outcomes.”

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