With stunning speed the COVID crisis has disrupted most every sector of our society in immeasurable ways. For schooling, the changes have been particularly acute and abrupt. As Education Week points out in their report on closings, in just a few weeks “… School closures due to coronavirus have impacted at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools and affected at least 55.1 million students.” That’s over 90% of the total (I am surprised it’s not 100%). The magnitude of the challenge of re-entry (as some folks rightly refer to the return to school) is immense. In addition to immediate “rescue” needs, local and state education leaders are now grappling with the harsh, front line realities that they will be facing in the next one to three months or more in virtually every aspect of schooling from nutrition to teaching and learning to staffing to school climate to student health to environmental security … and, yes, to school budgets.
While most schools are currently operating on tax-supported budgets established well over a year ago, they are experiencing some immediate pains related to the quick shifts to on-line learning, meal deliveries and new operating norms. But on the horizon are what Education Week is calling “draconian cuts … as soon as this summer” due to an unprecedented loss of tens of billions of dollars in state and local tax revenues during the spring and the prospect of continuing losses for the foreseeable future. While most school district budgets for the 2020/21 school year (beginning in July) were set several months ago, state legislatures and local school boards will no doubt have to go back to the drawing board with revised estimates of much lower revenues. As Michael Griffith, a school finance expert who will soon be working for the Learning Policy Institute, said during an Education Writers Association webinar on April 16, “… I can’t see a school district that won’t be looking at budget cuts this fall … Some might be dramatic. Some places might start seeing cuts (now during) this school year…” We will likely see widespread furloughs, salary cuts, contractor eliminations and a reduction of services coming soon.
The magnitude of this loss far outstrips the declines during the 2008/9 Great Recession from which many school district budgets did not recover for five years or more even with a massive federal stimulus package for education of almost $100 billion. The upcoming budgetary upheaval and resulting disruption of district education delivery systems could have a devastating impact on teaching and learning that will take months if not years to rectify. And as mentioned in a previous post, those who will be affected most adversely are those who have been most vulnerable, disenfranchised, and marginalized. The aspiration of equity and excellence for all suddenly seems far out of reach.
Indeed, that light at the end of the tunnel, which some had hoped would shine with the “re-opening” and a return to normalcy, might really turn out to be the headlight of an approaching train. The time is ripe to urgently re-imagine our system of education and create a New Normal for how all students can adapt and thrive in this ever-changing environment.