Next month will mark one year since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our lives and drastically changed the way we live, work, and learn. For many students around the country, that marks one year since they have been in the classroom full-time for in-person learning. The pandemic has been hard for all of us, but as a Dad, I am especially concerned about the impact it has had on our children.
Virtual education is putting American students at a significant disadvantage. In the absence of in-person instruction, our children are missing out on foundational skills needed to progress in their education and move into the working world. Data show that failure rates have increased and that students are falling behind in essential subjects like reading and math. In Arkansas, we have chosen to prioritize our children’s health, educational, and economic futures despite the COVID crisis. I hope President Biden and Vice President Harris follow Arkansas’s lead and reopen schools nationally so all children have the chance to succeed.
Arkansas has reopened schools in all districts, and we have done so safely. Data show 73 percent of schools have not needed to make school-wide modifications, and 80 percent of Arkansas students are attending school in person. Continued closures disproportionately affect students in rural, low-income, and minority communities. If children do not return to school, the achievement and economic opportunity gaps will only grow wider, and our students and economy will fall further behind.
Decreased academic performance and economic opportunities not the only consequences. I am deeply worried about the effects of the pandemic and the shutdown of in-person learning on students’ mental health. Social isolation, dramatically increased screen time, and a lack of exercise from organized sports and physical education will have lasting impacts on children. Moreover, many parents have been forced to choose between their full-time jobs and overseeing their children’s education from home, meaning reduced financial security for families. The priority for policy makers is to get schools the resources they need to safely return to in-person instruction. This will help kids enjoy extracurricular activities and time with their friends while getting parents back to work with the peace of mind of knowing their children’s academic and social needs are being met.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data from last fall show that in-person learning, with proper health and safety measures in place, has not contributed to substantial community spread of COVID-19. With the right tools in place, students across the nation can get back into the classroom for safe, in-person instruction like they have in Arkansas.
Congress has directed billions of dollars in funding to help schools safely reopen for in-person learning, including $30 billion in the original CARES Act and $82 billion in the second package passed in December. Democrats are now pushing for additional relief, which will include more funding for schools.
The federal government should not stand in the way of allowing state and local school officials to bring students back to the classroom if it is safe to do so. Instead, we should focus on helping schools promote student success. I am disappointed that President Biden and Vice President Harris have dragged their feet on reopening schools despite months of promising just that.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky was clear with the public in a White House briefing: schools can safely reopen with proper safety measures in place. But, after pushback from teachers’ unions, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki walked back the CDC Director’s comments, saying that it was not “official guidance.” It is unfortunate that an administration that was so vocal in their commitment to “following the science” has chosen to discount the science-based advice of one of our nation’s leading medical experts.
The word I use when I discuss reopening our schools is “safely” – something that President Biden himself has also said. Congress and the White House can find common ground and work together for the good of students, parents, and teachers alike. I hope the Biden-Harris Administration will put the president’s words into action.
Continuing to keep our children out of school will have severe long-term consequences, and the White House needs to put students across the nation ahead of politics and give schools the resources they need to reopen safely for in-person learning. I urge President Biden and Vice President Harris to follow Arkansas’s lead and prioritize America’s children.