HSC Applauds American Rescue Plan: Immediate COVID Relief Responds to School & Student Inequities

March 13, 2021 | Written By:

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

The COVID-relief package encourages districts to fund school facility improvements and healthcare services to mitigate immediate health and safety concerns — and offers a starting point for larger discussions around funding and school health equity.

This week, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief effort that provides substantial funding to help schools navigate the nation’s current education and health crisis.

Healthy Schools Campaign applauds the work of Congress and the Biden administration in developing strong legislation responsive to public health needs. The nearly $130 billion for K-12 schools will have a significant impact on their ability to safely reopen for in-person learning with additional supports for students and school personnel.

The Act stipulates that at least 20 percent of funding goes toward addressing COVID-related learning loss, including interventions around academic and social/emotional needs, and encourages hiring additional school nurses, counselors and school psychologists. 

In addition, districts can use funds to inspect and upgrade school facilities to improve indoor air quality and implement public health protocols in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is particularly welcomed given the need to get all students back into the classroom despite health and safety concerns — many of which pre-date the pandemic. About half of all schools, for example, do not have a dedicated nurse, though nurses are now expected to manage COVID-specific activities, including contact-tracing and surveillance, in addition to managing the health needs of the student population. 

“The pandemic refocused the nation’s attention on the importance of a healthy school environment and, in doing so, forced a reckoning with the fact that some students have never experienced a day in school with unlimited access to fresh air, safe drinking water and comprehensive health services,” said Rochelle Davis, HSC President and CEO. 

“This funding will help schools address immediate health and safety concerns, but it should not take a global pandemic to spur federal action on foundational inequities,” added Davis. “We hope that this moment marks the beginning of more equitable investment in the health and safety of all children. ”

Many school districts, particularly those in historically underfunded communities, need to make a substantial investment in aging school buildings. Prior to COVID, more than 14 million school days were missed every year because of asthma, a chronic condition worsened by poor indoor air quality that disproportionately affects students of color. Given what we now know about the transmission of COVID, indoor air quality is even more important as schools look to reopen. 

While the two previous COVID-relief packages provided schools with resources to mitigate COVID-related impacts, funds were not allowed to be used for facility improvements. We are pleased that the new Act includes assessing and repairing mechanical and non-mechanical HVAC systems, along with window and door repair and replacement. 

The Congressional Research Service provided an estimate of how much money each state could expect to receive for K-12 schools and higher education. The relief funds will be distributed according to federal Title I guidelines, which means high-poverty school districts will receive more money on a per-student basis than wealthier districts. The funds will remain available through Sept. 30, 2023. 

School districts have a lot of leeway in how they use their allotment. Additional health-related purposes include

  • Improving coordination among state, local, tribal and other entities to slow the spread of Covid-19.
  • Providing resources that principals need to address coronavirus at their schools.
  • Supporting school district efforts to improve preparedness.
  • Training staff on the best ways to sanitize schools and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Purchasing PPE and the supplies needed to clean and disinfect schools. (The CDC has provided an analysis of the costs of such resources.)
  • Planning for school closures.

In addition to directly supporting schools, the Act supports students and families via anti-poverty measures such as the expanded child tax credit and increased food assistance, including the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program that provides additional grocery benefits when schools are closed. The Act also funds Environmental Protection Agency grants to address disproportionate environmental harms to minority and low-income communities and air quality monitoring grants under the Clean Air Act.

While the American Rescue Plan represents a significant response to health and equity issues exacerbated by COVID, it does not fix the system. We still believe this is just the beginning of what’s needed to ensure all children can learn and thrive. 

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