Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced that schools in Pennsylvania would be closed for the remainder of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A crisis like this can bring clarity and lend perspective.
The coronavirus is shining a light on a great many things about our society, our communities and ourselves.
The current emergency has enabled us to recognize just how vital public education is to our lives and to the fabric of our communities. Schools are being recognized as not just places of learning, but also suppliers of meals and health care for students and centers of activity and enrichment for communities. And yes, as so many parents are now home trying to juggle their work while keeping an eye on the kids, schools are seen as a provider of childcare, too.
Through this crisis we are more clearly appreciating the importance and dedication of our educators. Administrators are working feverishly to prepare their schools to deliver instruction amidst the disruption and unpredictability of these closures. School workers are operating free “grab and go” meal programs for students outside schools or at bus stops. Counselors and social workers are doing what they can remotely to ensure student and families’ emotional and physical needs are met while students are not physically present in school buildings. Administrators and teachers are working feverishly to stay connected with their students while calming and supporting parents.
Crises also can expose the cracks in the foundations of our most critical institutions. The COVID-19 emergency is highlighting the inadequacy of Pennsylvania’s school funding system and the significant disparities in resources between school districts. School leaders, teachers, parents and other advocates have been calling out these problems for years, but it took this pandemic to make glaringly obvious how the wealth of a community dictates what opportunities are available to its students.
The clearest example is how quickly and easily some districts are able to transition to full online instruction, while other districts lack the resources to do so. In the Philadelphia suburbs, Lower Merion School District can provide full online access to students, while in nearby William Penn School District and Reading, many students go without. The same is true in the Lehigh Valley, where some districts can gear up to teach online and provide all students with laptops, while Allentown is unable to ensure that same online access to their students.
These disparities are not new. Long before anyone heard the word “coronavirus,” our state had the widest gap in spending between well-off and less wealthy schools. That is because Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to the share of education costs it picks up for local districts, leaving schools overly reliant on how much revenue they can generate locally. The poorest communities are unable to raise the resources necessary to provide students what they need.
The COVID-19 crisis threatens to make the situation even worse, as it will deliver a body blow to the economy, and with that, to family budgets and state and local government finances.
What should be done?
First, we need to make sure that our schools, especially those with the greatest needs, get the resources and guidance to fight through this crisis and continue educating all their students. Gov. Wolf and the state Legislature took swift action to keep dollars flowing, provide districts with needed flexibility, and ensure teachers and support staff would continue to work as districts wrestle with the challenges of distance learning.
Federally, the COVID-19 relief bill just enacted by Congress will help somewhat by directing funds to schools and to state and local governments. But we must be clear that expected funds from this relief bill will not be enough. More federal aid will be needed.
At the same time, the governor and legislators must protect schools from state funding cuts. The economic and fiscal impacts of this crisis are already surging through our communities. School districts will take a financial hit in local revenues and increased demands while they strive to keep their students on track. That blow cannot be compounded by cutbacks in state funding.
Finally, when we weather this pandemic and its immediate economic aftermath, Pennsylvania’s leaders must come together to solve our long-term school funding problems, once and for all. Let’s make a commitment that when the next crisis hits, our students will be better protected from its effects on their education, no matter where they live.
Donna Cooper, a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Planning and Policy, is the executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY). She writes on behalf of PA Schools Work Coalition.
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