By the end of this week, more than 62 percent of students across the country will complete their first day of school.
As a teacher, a principal, and a parent, I always loved those first few days – students seeing each other for the first time after summer break, getting to know their teachers, reading a book or participating in a club or a sport that sparked a new passion.
But this year, the joy that students and educators are feeling as they return to in-person learning is mixed with uncertainty and a sense of urgency as a result of the pandemic. As educators, we know in our hearts how important in-person learning is for student success—even before the data emerged on the devastating impact of school building closures during the past 18 months.
That is why our priority must be to help ensure that every student can safely return to school in person. Amidst the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the Delta variant, the truth is that we know what works to keep students and educators safe: following the science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
I’ve seen great examples of states and school districts that are leading the way. Earlier this week, I joined Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf for an announcement that the state will work to bring school-based vaccination clinics to every school district and offer free screening testing for all schools. And I recently spoke with Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is making a renewed push to encourage masking in Arkansas schools and offering incentives to eligible students to get vaccinated.
I am also deeply troubled when I see the opposite: officials that are putting politics ahead of students and blocking their school districts from adopting science-based strategies designed to protect students, aligned with CDC guidance.
These states are needlessly placing students, families, and educators at risk. Yet in each of these states, there are also educators and others who are taking steps to protect the health and safety of their school communities.
On behalf of the U.S. Department of Education, we stand with our educators and leaders who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.
As President Biden made clear in the Presidential Memorandum that he issued today: “Our priority must be the safety of students, families, educators, and staff in our school communities. Nothing should interfere with this goal.”
Here’s what we’re doing at ED to deliver on the President’s commitment:
Standing Up for Students’ Rights
I want to emphasize this Department’s commitment to protecting the rights of every student in the nation. The Department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally.
For example, the Department may initiate a directed investigation if facts indicate a potential violation of the rights of students as a result of state policies and actions. The Department will also receive and respond as appropriate to complaints from the public, including parents, guardians, and others about students who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures. As always, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights evaluates allegations of discrimination on a case-by-case basis, looking at the specific facts of each case.
In addition, the Department’s Office of Special Education Programs monitors states’ implementation of the federal special education law that requires that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education.
Supporting School Districts to Protect Students and Educators
Following the letters I sent last week to Florida and Texas, today the Department issued communications to six additional states that have also prohibited universal mask mandates – Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) requires each school district that receives Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services. As I wrote in the letters, actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the CDC may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.
In addition, the ARP Act explicitly gives school districts the authority to use ESSER funds for “developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including, to the greatest extent practicable, policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff.” It also specifies that ESSER funds can be used to support “activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.” We will take any necessary action to ensure that nothing interferes with a school district’s discretion to make these critical investments, including state policies from a Governor, state legislature, state education agency, or other officials. This also includes paying the full salaries of educators (including superintendents) and school board members if their state moves to withhold their salary or levy financial penalties on their schools.
Let me be clear—this Department will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begins.
You have my word: We will follow the science. We will do what is best for students. And together we will fulfill the extraordinary potential of our public education system in this most challenging of years. Our students deserve it!