Building our schools back better


Summer vacation for students this year follows almost a year and a half of coronavirus shutdowns and precautions. The learning loss during school closures was significant, and unless steps are taken, the U.S. risks the education of a generation of young people.

Covid-19 isn’t disappearing, but medical specialists are pushing for a full reopening of public schools this fall. Caution will be necessary; there will need to be regular cleaning and inspections to ensure that ventilation systems are working properly. When possible, children and staff should be vaccinated. Indoors, children in all grades should still wear masks. Research shows that when precautions are followed, reopening of classrooms won’t be the cause of serious viral outbreaks.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $122 billion for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. New York state is scheduled to receive about $9 billion from the fund if its recently submitted proposal is approved by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. The law mandates that 90 percent of the federal money go directly to help local educational agencies, and at least 20 percent of those funds be used “to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions and ensure that those interventions respond to students’ social, emotional and academic needs and address the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on underrepresented student subgroups.”

New York’s 83-page school reopening plan stresses three priority areas that local school districts must address with the federal funds: academic performance gaps caused by school closings and problems with online instruction during the pandemic; the need for culturally responsive social and emotional support for returning students; and implementation of evidence-based interventions.

Interventions are also stressed in the federal call for proposals. While school districts will have flexibility in how they use federal funds to achieve state priorities, the State Education Department is making recommendations. It identifies specific needs, including expanding full-day pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds and increasing facilities funding for New York City charter schools whose enrollments rose during the pandemic.

As an educator, I welcome the infusion of much-needed federal dollars, but I have major concerns about how the money will be used. I worry when school districts establish their own priorities. Before the pandemic, there were 370 schools in New York state listed as in need of support and improvement, an additional 43 placed in priority “receivership” and over 100 “targeted districts.” There were also districts like Hempstead and East Ramapo, in Rockland County, that required state-appointed special advisers because of their histories of poor academic performance and questionable financial activity.

The requirement for evidence-based interventions in both the state proposal and the federal application reads suspiciously like a call for renewed high-stakes standardized testing. This year, because of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, New York required students taking in-person classes to sit for English and math tests. The exams interfered with already reduced instructional time and were worthless because so few students took them, and because the state reused earlier exams that had been given to students for practice.

We already know that many students are far behind because of interrupted education over the past 16 months. The pandemic should give us pause to reconsider the state’s questionable testing regime, which should not be automatically reinstituted.

Covid-19 relief continues federal support for charter schools, including some highly suspicious operators. In Pennsylvania, online charter school operators received more than $200 million, even though students never attended in-person classes. In North Carolina, segregated “white” academy private schools have morphed into charter schools so they can collect federal and state dollars.

During the pandemic, some charter schools were accused of double dipping, receiving federal money from funds earmarked for schools and money from programs designed to prevent layoffs of employees at small businesses.

New York’s proposal calls for increased funding of poorly regulated charter schools that are already draining money from public schools. Hidden deep inside the $1.9 trillion federal pandemic rescue package, largely because of efforts by Sen. Chuck Schumer, is a giveaway to private and religious schools, a provision that seems to violate the fundamental wall of separation between church and state that dates back to the first decades of our country. In New York state, a number of religious schools have been investigated for failure to provide students with a required secular education.

President Biden campaigned on the slogan “Build Back Better.” That goes for our schools as well.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.