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Ed Dept. Officials Tell Congress Students Are Protected for In-Class Education

October 1, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials tried to assure a Senate panel Thursday that the nation’s schools are following the right strategy to remain open while minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The new school year is barely a month old but controversies still rage in lawsuits and municipal meetings about whether students are becoming the hosts that keep the pandemic going.

This year is the first time in a year-and-a-half that nearly all the nation’s schools have reopened to in-class learning. An estimated 96% of the nation’s kindergarten through high school classes have resumed, according to the U.S. Department of Education figures. 

“Every student’s learning was disrupted in some way,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

No member of her committee disputed that in-class learning is a better alternative than the remote teaching and self-guided study that was compelled by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Everyone wants to get back to the classroom and stay there,” Murray said.

However, as the U.S. death toll from the pandemic surpassed 700,000 this week, lawmakers asked the U.S. secretaries of education and health and human services about their strategies to keep students and their families safe from disease.

“As the delta variant has shown us, this pandemic is far from over,” Murray said.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said the funding and equipment are adequate to protect teachers and students. The main obstacle is ensuring that school systems and their contractors distribute it properly.

“Schools have the tools to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Becerra said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends a multi-faceted approach to disease protection.

“The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that when prevention strategies are layered and implemented correctly, transmission within schools can be limited,” Becerra said in his testimony. “We know that we will be confronting COVID-19 in our schools for the near future, but there are key strategies, including vaccinating, masking, testing, tracing, distancing and improving ventilation, which can significantly reduce its transmission.”

If there is a problem in implementing the plan, it lies at the local level, he said. School systems are administered by cities and states, some of which adhere strictly to health and safety guidelines but others that largely ignore them.

Florida’s governor, for example, at one point threatened to withhold funding from school systems that required students to wear masks.

Part of the federal strategy relies on using rapid tests to determine when schoolchildren are infected with COVID-19. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved by Congress in March includes about $90 billion for COVID-19 treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tests, some of which are being funneled to schools.

“We have the tests but getting them to the right source at the right point is difficult,” Becerra said.

He also cautioned that even after the pandemic subsides, students could suffer long-term consequences that include a need for mental health counseling.

“The pandemic is not only taking lives, it is devastating our kids’ mental health,” Becerra said.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said that even with a return to in-class education, students are likely to suffer a “learning loss” from their time away from school.

“Our students missed out on a lot in the last year-and-a-half,” Cardona said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., questioned whether the Department of Health and Human Services and Education Department were following a careful plan for reopening schools and protecting students.

“We need a clear, straightforward strategy” that can be fully implemented within months, Burr said.

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