Every September, kids go back to school. This year, learning will happen in new and scarcely tested conditions. The coronavirus pandemic means that kids and teachers may not be able to attend school safely.

Districts and communities are considering a variety of approaches. Some districts are proposing 100% remote learning for the foreseeable future. Others are considering hybrid models, where children attend in smaller cohorts for a portion of the week. Some are even calling for a full-time, unrestricted return, though families and teachers have expressed strong reservations. Two things are for certain. First, the strategizing to reopen must be made on a local basis, with schools and community stakeholders collaborating in open communication. Funds must not be tied to reopening. Second, the federal government must allocate hundreds of billions of dollars to states to prevent catastrophe.

Public schools are the backbone of our democracy, shaping our youth and fueling their learning, academic and social. Schools, and child care for young ones, ideally provide a nurturing space for kids to learn and begin to name the world around them, together with their peers, on the road to becoming. Regardless of the form school takes in September, we must make sure that it continues to deliver everything that kids rely on schools for — education, lunch, social services, mental health services. Beyond that, schools must tackle inequities, long present, and exacerbated by the pandemic.

As the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine points out, the question of reopening must be iterative; we must be responsive to day-to-day changes. Planning will inform our practices and experiences; in turn, experience and practice will inform our understanding and planning. The process will be ongoing.

As schools are becoming the crisis’s next frontier, not prioritizing education will mean more kids, teachers, non-teaching staff, parents, and grandparents will get sick and die. For districts that return, best practices will be mitigating, not absolute. But they will be the difference between putting thousands more children, staff, and their families at risk.

Monetary support must reflect the rhetorical commitment given to kids and education. For a long time, kids and education have not gotten their fair share of federal spending, and statewide and local budget shortfalls, exacerbated by the virus, mean that schools and teachers struggle to operate on shrinking budgets. Congress is currently negotiating emergency relief and its annual appropriations. To support education immediately, lawmakers must do the following:

  • Ensure kids continue receiving vital services and commit to equity.
    • Millions of kids rely on schools as the locus of necessary services, from school lunches to homeless liaisons, to socio-emotional support, and more. Ensure that students who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout – kids experiencing poverty and homelessness, kids with disabilities, English learners, and foster youth, and disproportionately Black and Brown students – receive the food assistance, educational support, physical, mental, and emotional health services and other supports they need, regardless of the learning model.
    • Prioritize getting certain populations of kids back in the classroom. For many young students in early childhood and elementary education, social learning is a primary issue and remote learning simply isn’t feasible. Some children with disabilities thrive in special education classrooms, but struggle with online learning. Health factors may force other children to learn remotely. Students experiencing homelessness may not have a safe and secure place to do remote learning. Remote schooling has been — and can be — successful for many kids. But we should make sure kids who need in-person learning get back to the classroom first.
  • Make a mammoth investment in teachers and non-teaching staff.
    • How many teachers will get sick, resign, or take leaves of absence? The pandemic and its attendant upheaval come amidst a teacher shortage that extends to substitutes and is projected to get worse in the coming year. At the same time, teachers will be tasked with more work, and the burdens of the crisis demand more substitutes and teachers than ever before. Teachers cannot conduct classes for online and in-person cohorts at the same time; as a colleague put it: that’s a political solution, not a practical one. Yet right now, budget shortfalls mean more teachers are being laid off. Beyond that, nurses and counseling staff will be overwhelmed with the health needs of students, physical and mental. Schools need a fleet of well-paid and supported teachers, substitutes, healthcare professionals, social workers, instructional aides, and non-teaching staff (like bus drivers, custodians, and food personnel). To start, we need a minimum of $200 billion put toward education; as time progresses, states will likely need continued relief packages.
  • Make education equitable.
    • States and localities, which normally foot the bill on education, will not be able to sufficiently fund education on their own. Dramatically decreasing statewide revenues and virus-induced lost funds for schools may mean the adoption of austerity measures, including devastating cuts to education. At the same time, staff and stakeholders need to revamp the way schools and learning operate, whether in the classroom or remote. Long-held practices in education funding, among them a reliance on local property taxes, have led to wide inequities between districts – poor districts, and the kids in them, get less funding than their wealthy counterparts. These inequities occur, too, along racial lines: Black and Latinx communities are consistently underfunded. Support our kids by investing particularly and decisively in equity.
      • Enact an immediate eviction moratorium to prevent more kids and families from becoming homeless.
      • Support public schools over charters and privates
      • Bridge the digital divide by investing in E-Rate and Lifeline
      • Support working and unemployed parents, and parents experiencing homelessness, whose kids will need to get to school or learn from home

Confronted with the reality that going back to school isn’t going back to normal, this crisis forces us to find creative responses to old problems foregrounded by new conditions. We need to put our focus on getting kids the education, services, and support they need, regardless of how or where we deliver them.