What lies ahead for Colorado schools – August 2020

What lies ahead for Colorado schools now that we know we won’t be able to bring in any of the additional revenue Fair Tax Colorado would have provided (an estimated $1 Billion for schools)?

While it feels like a lifetime ago, at the end of this legislative session, legislators, especially members of the Joint Budget Committee, expressed grave concern for future years after having dealt with a $3.3 Billion shortfall this year and a forecast of another $2 Billion next year.  It’s scary for the state and downright terrifying for our schools; and thinking about the challenges makes one scratch their head why anyone would even want to be a legislator in the coming years considering the tough decisions they will be forced to make.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:  “COVID-19 has triggered a severe state budget crisis.  While the full magnitude of this crisis is not yet clear, state revenues are declining precipitously and costs are rising sharply with many businesses closed and tens of millions of people newly unemployed.”

“Colorado’s revenues could drop by as much as $2.6 billion in 2021 and $1.7 billion in 2022, according to the Legislative Council.”    https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/states-grappling-with-hit-to-tax-collections

Many of our schools took a beating this year as they faced the budget reductions – but for some districts like Jeffco, they were able to use the Federal dollars from the CARES Act to cover a lot of those shortfalls, knowing full well they would be without in future years when there will be  even bigger hits to the budget.  Not to mention, no one really knows what the ultimate cost to schools will be to open their doors, in any form, until they do it.  They are literally building this ship while they sail it.

It’s all quite messy and confusing.  Here’s our take on some of the challenges our schools face this year as they struggle to find a sweet spot that meets everyone’s needs and demands, and why it will likely roll into an even greater crisis in future years.

The pressure on school districts to “open their doors to classes” this fall (August/September) comes from all directions, but how do we define “open their doors to classes” ?

In some cases, there’s pressure to provide a “face-to-face” learning environment.  (We’ve even heard some parents insist there be NO social distancing and NO mask mandate for their child).

Many educators and parents are advocating for an on-line environment, which some districts are considering at least for the early part of the school year.  And yet there are other requests or demands for a hybrid environment – a combination of both.

To further complicate things, as the pressure on schools increases to provide face-to-face learning, these findings on vaccination rates for influenza and the role it is expected to play nationally certainly makes a situation that is already high-risk even more precarious.  Consider these key findings from Quote Wizard, an insurance industry publication: Child Flu Vaccination Rates by State:  https://quotewizard.com/news/posts/child-flu-vaccinations-by-state

  • Kaiser Family Foundation estimates nearly 1.5 million teachers (one in four) are at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
  • Child influenza vaccination rates have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic by an estimated 21.5% from January to April 2020.
  • Anticipating the “double whammy” of influenza season and COVID-19, the CDC is giving $140 million to immunization programs.
  • The national average rate of vaccinated children in the United States is 58%

“In a moderate year for influenza, the CDC estimates over 35 million cases of influenza and 490,000 hospitalizations.  Paired with growing cases of COVID-19 among younger people, the risk of sending kids back to school could become amplified.  COVID-19 has already made access to influenza vaccinations difficult for many children.  It’s estimated that from January to April, child flu vaccine doses decreased by 21.5%.  Without regular doctor visits during the pandemic, children are less likely to receive the flu shot heading into the school year.”

In the best of cases, with fully funded schools, any of the school opening options would still be a challenge to do in a safe and equitable manner.   Unfortunately, we are so far away from “fully funded”, it’s beyond pathetic.  So how does a school district even come close to making any of what their particular school community requests or demands a reality?

As we all continue to have this conversation, this Chalkbeat article is a good place to start.  We have included some inserts below, but encourage you to take the time to read the entire article: Reopening America’s schools is way harder than it should be by Sarah Darville. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2020/7/23/21335245/reopening-schools

“Of all the American institutions the pandemic has shut down, none face pressure to reopen quite like schools do.  Pediatricians exhort schools to open their doors wherever possible or risk developmental harm to kids.  Working parents, particularly mothers, are in crisis, worried about having to leave the workforce altogether in the absence of a place to send their young children each day.  And President Trump is campaigning for schools to reopen, threatening to withhold funding if they don’t.”

“Outrage over schools inability to fully reopen should not…be directed at schools themselves, but at the public health failure that makes it impossible for most of them to do so.  The consequences of closed or half-open schools meanwhile are far vaster than the brutal economic challenge facing working parents and their employers.  That’s because schools do much more than provide child care.”

“They provide education, fundamentally.  But as the pandemic has made clear, they also provide meals, social connection and health services.”

“…many of the country’s 13,000-plus school districts have been left alone to navigate everything from finding masks to deciding what safe classrooms look like – not to mention how to offer widespread and safe food distribution and personalized emotional support in the absence of physical gathering space.”

“…teachers did not sign up to prop up the economy by providing child care while putting their health and the health of their families at risk…teachers are also workers who have received few assurances about job safety.  School districts are still working out who will be able to work from home, what protective equipment they can provide, how students will be grouped and how infections will be handled.”

“…states are facing projected shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion over the next three years thanks to the spiraling pandemic.  Without federal help, schools will have to lay off teachers and make other painful cuts in the years ahead.  What school leaders, social scientists, parents, and others say is needed in the short term – the ability to add space and staff members, offer in-school tutoring, and provide additional child-care options, among other things – won’t be possible without more funding, either.”

What about funding help from the Feds?   From this Washington Post article: Here is what’s in the Senate GOP’s $1 trillion ‘Heals Act’ package https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/27/senate-coronavirus-legislation-heals-act/

“Education funding.  The GOP bill includes $105 billion for education, with $70 billion targeted to K-12 schools…two-thirds of the funding is reserved to help schools reopen for in-person instruction. To get the funding, schools would have to meet certain “minimum opening requirements” established by their states.”

“The package also authorizes one-time emergency funding for state scholarship programs, which help families pay for private school tuition and other expenses…this fund would get 10 percent of the $70 billion.”

When we talk about needed funding and resources, “…close to $2.8 trillion in federal aid devoted to the recovery thus far, only $13 billion has been allocated specifically to k-12 education.  That’s less than half of one percent of the total funding.”

“Recent estimates put state revenue shortfalls at 10% in the fiscal year that just ended, with an expectation that they will rise to about 25% in the new fiscal year…states are facing additional health care, unemployment, and education-related costs.  Because states cannot engage in deficit spending, substantial education cuts are inevitable without federal assistance.  Even conservative estimates of state funding cuts to schools suggest that states will need between $200 and $300 billion to stabilize their k-12 education budgets and meet even a portion of the additional costs over the next year and a half.”  –The Urgency of Reopening Schools Safely https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindadarlinghammond/2020/07/21/the-urgency-of-reopening-schools-safely/#6db78ebe32e0

We don’t pretend to have the solution.  What’s clearly obvious:  to make sure our schools are in a position to do ALL that is asked of them will require funding and resources, none of which public schools nationally have – and in Colorado?  To say we are in dire straits would be a gross understatement – between the current loss of funding –  the Budget Stabilization Factor now at $1.17 Billion (funding we are currently shorting our public schools), the yet to be determined high cost of reopening schools (in any manner this year), and forecasts for future state revenue shortages which results in more cuts to school funding; and please let’s not forget the huge negative impact of Gallagher if the Gallagher Repeal is not passed by voters this fall (costing schools statewide almost half a billion dollars http://www.supportjeffcokids.org/gallagher-amendment/ ) – In Colorado, there’s no other way to put it:  we’re screwed.

“They say, if you want to know what a community values, look at how its children are treated.  If you want a sense of what a community hopes for the future, look at how it values its schools.”