Thursday, March 18, 2021

Tom Malinowski and Josh Gottheimer: It's time to reopen schools

Mikie Sherrill Andy Kim Josh Gottheimer Tom Malinowski
NJ Representatives Mikie Sherrill, Josh Gottheimer, Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski

Two Congressmen representing Northern New Jersey say the state isn't on track to meet President Biden's end-of-March goal to reopen schools. They ask that state and local leaders do more, including setting aside full days at state- and county-administered testing sites just for teachers and school staff. "We recognize that there is still a limited supply of vaccine, which is not our state's fault, so difficult choices must be made." Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media.

By Tom Malinowski and Josh Gottheimer
March 15, 2021

Short of crushing the COVID pandemic itself, we believe that nothing is more urgent than getting our children back into schools for in-person instruction.

Going virtual was the right thing to do when the virus struck us, to save the lives of school staff, parents and students alike. Our teachers did all they could to make it work; our kids have been resilient. But the toll on children after one year away from physical school — on their emotional and mental health and their educational progress — has been great, and grows each day. The greatest harm is done to the youngest children, who need hands-on instruction and opportunities for play with their peers the most, and to their parents, who must somehow juggle their jobs with making sure their kids are paying attention to virtual classes. It's time to re-open our schools safely.

We do not yet know the full extent of our students' learning losses during this past year. But along with troubling reports of absenteeism, we have seen indications that declines in reading and math proficiency could be significant. One study has estimated that virtual learning has already cost students 3% of their career earnings. The opportunity gap between public and private school students has also grown, as wealthier private schools have been able to afford the investments needed to stay open.

Meanwhile, many kids have told us that their biggest challenge with virtual school is coping with feelings of isolation. We've seen a rise in youth emergency room visits related to mental health and in student suicides across the country.

In the early days of the crisis, virtual education let our political leaders off the hook, creating the illusion that our nation's population of children and parents had been taken care of during the COVID crisis. There was more angry debate about opening gyms and bars than about opening schools. Thankfully, that has changed — there is now a consensus that we must prioritize the needs of our kids.

But there has still been a debate about how to get kids back in classrooms. In Congress, many wanted to force schools to reopen, whether safe or not, by withholding federal funds from districts that continue virtual learning. We argued it was better to help schools reopen safely, by funding physical upgrades and vaccinating educators. That debate has now been settled.

First, the American Rescue Plan Congress enacted last week includes $170 billion in education funding. New Jersey's K-12 schools will get almost $3 billion to make in-person education safer, by reducing class sizes and creating spaces, indoors or outdoors, in which social distancing is possible, modernizing ventilation systems, buying more PPE and hiring more educators to help our children who've fallen behind. This builds on the three bipartisan bills we helped lead, dating to the first days of the crisis, which allocated significant resources for our schools.

Second, in early February, we wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and urged the Biden administration to prioritize teachers and other school staff for the COVID vaccine, arguing that they should be treated like police officers and firefighters — workers who perform an essential job that puts them at risk. On March 2, President Biden delivered, ordering states to make educators eligible for the vaccine and setting a goal of giving them all their first shots by the end of March.

In New Jersey, our state government has responded by creating special lines for educators at vaccine mega sites on weekends and after school hours on weekdays. Last week, RiteAid pharmacies set aside two days when only educators were able to make appointments for shots.

But New Jersey is not currently on track to meet President Biden's end-of-March goal. We hope our state and local leaders will do more, including, if necessary, setting aside full days at state- and county-administered testing sites just for teachers and school staff. We recognize that there is still a limited supply of vaccine, which is not our state's fault, so difficult choices must be made. The choice we would make is to put New Jersey's children first.

Ultimately, it will be up to local school districts to decide, in consultation with parents, when to reopen. Our job as elected officials is to give them the tools they need to feel confident to do so soon, so students can finish this academic year in a classroom.

Josh Gottheimer for Congress
PO Box 584
Suite 407
Ridgewood NJ 07451 United States 

Paid for by Josh Gottheimer for Congress

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