President Trump has warned public school districts that he might withhold federal funding for those that don’t fully open this fall during the coronavirus pandemic. While he can’t unilaterally withhold funding already approved by Congress, he could pressure Republicans in the Senate to attach any new funding to such a mandate.

The Democratic-led House passed a $3 trillion aid package in May that provides close to $60 billion for K-12 schools. The Senate, which has in the past followed Trump’s lead on most issues, is expected to soon start considering a new economic stimulus bill that could include funding for schools.

So will the Republican-led Senate try to link funding with in-person learning in opened school buildings?

Asked where he stood on the issue, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, gave a statement suggesting he does support such a linkage. He said:

Congress should provide new federal funding to help all public and private schools and colleges open safely this Fall. We should also give states new funding to distribute to those schools and colleges that incur additional expenses because of meaningful plans to open safely with students physically present in classrooms. The American Academy of Pediatrics says ‘all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.’

The American Academy of Pediatrics did issue school reopening guidance that said that statement never was an endorsement of Trump’s call for schools to open fully. Late last week, the organization attempted to distance itself from the administration by releasing a statement — along with three other education groups — saying threatening to withhold funds from districts that don’t open is “misguided.”

The statement — issued with the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country; the National Education Association, the largest union in the country, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association — also said “schools in areas with high levels of covid-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.”

Last week, Vice President Pence said “we expect there will be additional support there,” and the administration would “work with Congress” on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he expects to announce details of a coronavirus relief package next week. Some school funding is likely to be in the bill but he has not directly said whether he approves of a link between funding and reopening schools.

"I know they’re going to need help in order to keep the kids safely in schools,” McConnell said. “There’s a cost associated with that.” His office on Wednesday declined to go beyond the comments he made Tuesday.

Even if the Senate does pass such a link, the House is not likely to support it. But such Senate action would add to the pressure that school district superintendents around the country have been feeling about how and when to reopen schools. Some districts, including those in Los Angeles and Atlanta, have already announced they will have only remote learning this fall because covid-19 infection rates in their communities are too high.

Superintendents have said for months that they cannot reopen schools safely for the new academic year unless they get a lot more federal funding to help them cover the costs of pandemic-related changes, such as purchasing masks and other protective equipment.

When Congress passed its multi-trillion-dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March, it included a little more than $13.5 billion for K-12 public schools. But education leaders say that doesn’t come close to covering their costs.

The legislation passed in May includes $90 billion for the U.S. Department of Education to support K-12 and higher education, with nearly $60 billion targeted to go to local school districts through state governments.

Trump could pressure Republicans in the Senate to link new aid to in-person learning this fall. With the Democratic majority in the House not likely to go along with such a requirement, any compromise economic stimulus legislation that gets to Trump’s desk for signature will probably not include it. He could then veto the bill and Congress could override the veto.

Even the school funding in the House bill isn’t close to what school districts say they collectively need to open safely.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit organization that represents public officials who head state departments of elementary and secondary education, recently sent a letter to Congress estimating the cost of safely reopening schools this fall is estimated to be between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion.

The American Federation of Teachers says schools need an additional $116.5 billion to meet “public health, well-being and instructional needs of students, teachers and school staff in order to reopen safely.”

The Association of School Business Officials International and AASA/School Superintendents Association recently did an analysis on reopening costs for an average school district — which would have 3,659 students, eight buildings, 183 classrooms, 329 staff members and 40 buses — and set the price tag at more than $1 million. The cost would be exponentially higher for larger districts with hundreds of thousands of students. There are more than 13,500 school districts in the country.

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