President-elect Joe Biden is pitching a $175 billion plan to get children back into K-12 classrooms and bolster the finances of colleges and universities nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic throttled public education systems in the U.S.
The plan, part of a larger economic stimulus Biden announced Thursday, includes $130 billion for public elementary, middle and high schools and approximately $35 billion for institutions of higher education.
“The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges for K-12 schools and institutions of higher education, and the students and parents they serve,” he said in a statement. “School closures have disproportionately impacted the learning of Black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities and English language learners.”
On the K-12 front, school administrators would be able to use the funding for a host of things, including to reduce class sizes and reconfigure classrooms to be able to adhere to social distancing; improve ventilation; hire more nurses, counselors, teacher aides and janitors; provide personal protective equipment; increase transportation capacity so students can social distance on buses; provide students with computers and other digital devices and internet access; and provide summer school and tutoring programs to make up lost learning time this year.
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School districts would use the funding not only to address the severe academic learning loss incurred by students over the last 10 months – especially among the country’s most vulnerable students, like low-income students, those with disabilities and those learning English – but also to address the social and emotional impact of the pandemic and their mental health needs.
A portion of funding would be reserved for a COVID-19 Educational Equity Challenge Grant, which would fund partnerships between state, local and tribal governments and teachers, parents and other education or community organizations that address coronavirus-related education challenges through an equity lens.
Under Biden’s plan, schools would also be able to tap into the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund resources to get reimbursed for COVID-19 related expenses and to establish regular testing protocols.
Biden underscored that at least part of the proposed funding would be supplemented by states but did not offer an estimate of what he expected them to contribute.
On the higher education front, the plan would provide $35 billion to expand the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and help colleges and universities cover the costs of implementing public health protocols and their distance learning plans, as well as provide emergency grants to their lowest income students. The funding would be for public schools, including community colleges, as well as for public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions.
The $35 billion pot would also provide students up to an additional $1,700 in financial assistance from their college, though it’s unclear whether that would be through an increase to the federal Pell Grant or a separate program.
Biden’s plan also includes a $5 billion “Hardest Hit Education Fund,” which would allow governors to focus extra dollars on students hit the hardest by the pandemic in the early education, K-12 and higher education settings.
Biden called the most recent COVID-19 stimulus Congress passed last month, which included $81 billion for K-12 and higher education, a “down payment” insufficient to address the crisis. As it stands, more than half of K-12 students are learning fully or partially remotely.
Biden has pledged to open the majority of K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his administration.
“This will require immediate, urgent action by Congress,” he said about the entire $175 billion plan, which isn’t a sure bet given the narrow margins of Democratic control in the House and Senate.