Editor’s Note: This is a joint commentary from Lois Carson, president of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, and Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
On Thursday, March 12, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that Ohio schools would be shutting down physically and four days later, our entire public school system — 610 districts, 3,583 schools, 138,528 teachers and other employees — turned on a dime to implement distance learning.
Across the state we taught classes online, set up virtual office hours, prepared paper learning materials for students without internet access, prepared and distributed hundreds of thousands of meals, deep-cleaned and sanitized our school buildings, used telemedicine to continue delivering health services to students, and did everything we could to support our students, academically and emotionally, through this difficult time.
It was not easy, but we understood and accepted the emergency situation we were under. What we don’t understand and what we can not accept, is that as teachers, school nurses and psychologists, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodial staff, and other school staff prepare for the 2020-21 school year, they are being asked to do more with less. As a result, our students will be at greater risk of illness and greater risk of falling behind in their classes.
That is why we are asking Ohio U.S. Sen. Rob Portman to support the HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act) and to ask Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it up for a vote in the Senate. The HEROES Act is projected to bring more than $3 billion in education funding to Ohio, including more than $2 billion for K-12 education. This money is desperately needed because at the same time our students’ needs have increased, state and local funding is declining due to the sluggish economy.
While each school district will individually interpret Gov.DeWine’s guidelines for a safe reopening and formulate specific local plans, almost every possible scenario results in the need for more teachers, more staff, and more resources. Any in-school learning will mean additional staff to deep clean and sanitize buildings and buses. If students need to be physically distanced on buses, in classes, and in lunchrooms, school districts will need more teachers and paraprofessionals to allow for smaller class sizes and more bus drivers, bus aides, and food service staff (or longer work days for current staff). If students are on a split schedule, districts will still need more teachers and paraprofessionals to keep students engaged remotely during their distance-learning days each week. And if the pandemic conditions require schools to go back to full-time distance learning, districts will need to invest in technology to keep all students moving forward together, and in social and emotional learning to help students cope with the stress and disruption.
However, not only will Ohio school districts be unable to make these investments, in many districts they are already being forced to make cuts in response to lower funding from the state, lower local tax revenue, and the challenge of passing new levies in the struggling economy.
For example, the Cincinnati Public Schools Board just approved a blended model of learning for next year where students will attend in person two or three days a week and attend school remotely the remaining days, but they’ll need to accomplish that while they are projected to cut 726 employee positions to close their budget gap. At Belpre City Schools, the district has cited the COVID 19 budget shortfall for the layoffs of nine of 13 paraprofessionals; two of four secretaries; and three of seven cooks. These cooks were deemed essential employees during the health emergency, yet instead of receiving thanks, they are receiving layoff notices.
Columbus City Schools, which lost $9.2 million in state funding under the governor’s budget cuts in May, is now grappling with the logistics of transporting more than 40,000 students daily on school buses with reduced capacity due to social distancing guidelines, among many other challenges. Columbus Schools leaders estimate reopening schools safely will cost the district $100 million in one-time and recurring expenses.
The HEROES Act isn’t only about education funding. Ohio would receive nearly $16 billion overall, including $4.3 billion in additional Medicaid funding as we continue to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. HEROES also provides funds for hazard pay for frontline workers and for nine months of COBRA benefits for the unemployed, extends unemployment benefits, increases support for nutritional assistance, and helps with student debt. These are actions we must take to help our neighbors, friends, and family get through this difficult time.
We thank Ohio U.S. Reps. Joyce Beatty, Marcia Fudge, Marcy Kaptur, and Tim Ryan for voting for the HEROES Act in the House and Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown for pledging his support in the Senate. We need Rob Portman to step up and do the right thing for Ohio students and communities.