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Blunt: It’s Time for Students to Go Back to School

February 25, 2021

WASHINGTON - Yesterday, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.) spoke on the U.S. Senate floor to urge the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats to support Republicans’ calls to get students back in school. Despite Democrats’ claims that additional funding is needed, Congress has already provided $67.5 billion to help get students back in the classroom. So far, states have only spent about $5 billion of that money.

As Blunt noted, numerous studies show that prolonged remote learning puts kids at higher risk of falling behind, failing classes, and suffering from mental health problems. 

Earlier this month, Blunt introduced a budget amendment that incentivized school districts to get students back into school after teachers have been vaccinated. The amendment was blocked by every Senate Democrat.

Following Are Blunt’s Remarks:

“Mr. President, a year ago, schools began to close due to the coronavirus. Teachers quickly scrambled to try to figure out how they were going to teach kids who weren't there. They set up virtual classrooms on the internet. Parents started Googling activities to keep their children motivated and active.

“If they didn't start that a year ago, they started 11 months ago. It didn't take long to figure out that kids at home are different than kids at school. And even before that, many parents had to start accommodating their schedule to try to figure out how they were going to deal with this new and unanticipated schedule.

“Congress stepped up on multiple occasions. We passed emergency legislation to get money to schools to clean classrooms, to buy laptops for students, to do almost anything else that schools thought they might need at the elementary and secondary level.

“But what started as what I believe everybody thought was a stop gap — certainly no longer until the weather got hot in the summertime as we finished up the last school year — has become in many places a permanent, full-time now where students for a year have not been in school. That's despite a lot of widespread consensus that both scientists and medical experts think that kids can be back in the classroom.

“The science on studying and learning is also clear. When schools are closed, students suffer. There have been a lot of studies that show that prolonged remote learning puts kids at higher risk for falling behind, for failing classes, for suffering from mental health problems, in many cases just deciding not to show up. And, you know, the one thing about virtual is it's pretty easy to not virtually be there as well.

“The risk on all those areas of mental health problems, of falling behind and failing grades, [are] even greater for students with disabilities or for minorities or people who live in generally underserved areas.

“A study by McKinsey looked at the toll prolonged remote learning is taking on students. It estimated that when it comes to mathematics, students on average are likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year, said that students of color — this is according to McKinsey — could be six to 12 months behind at the end of this school year. Think about that: one year of remote learning could leave students one year behind where they should be in math if you look at these experts’ studies.

“In addition to the academic damage, remote learning has led to an increase in mental health challenges facing students. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that mental health problems accounted for a growing proportion of students’ visits to hospital emergency rooms. Visits are up 31% for kids between ages 12 and 17 and 24% for kids between ages five and 11. And according to the CDC, many of those visits are based on a mental health challenge rather than some other kind of health challenge.

“The risks of keeping kids at home are significant. What's worse, they're unnecessary by the growing number of people who are looking at this. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who's the head of the CDC, recently appointed by President Biden. She began her work there on January 21, talked about what we should do. Earlier this month, she said that there was increasing data — this is a quote from her — 'increasing data that schools can safely reopen.' That ends the quote, but she went on to say even if teachers aren't vaccinated for the virus.

“Anthony Fauci, Dr. Fauci, echoed that point. He said, ‘I would back the CDC recommendations because what they are really based on is data...we need to try and get the children back to school.’ That ends Dr. Fauci's quote. He went on a step further by saying that it’s not even workable to wait for every teacher to be vaccinated before schools reopen. Because when you think about that, if every teacher had their first vaccine today in the double vaccine world we're still in, it'd be the end of March before every teacher had their second vaccine. And, you're so far down the line, before you know it that school might not be able to reopen in that circumstance.

“Dr. David Rosen, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis, said there's no situation — this is his quote, ‘there is no situation in which schools can't be open unless they have evidence of in-school transmission.’

“The Biden White House actually immediately said they just didn't agree with the experts on this, even the ones in their own administration. The president's press secretary said that Dr. Walensky was speaking in her personal capacity when she said you could go back to school even if teachers weren't vaccinated, even though she was speaking at an official White House coronavirus briefing. How the head of the CDC speaks in her personal capacity at an official White House coronavirus briefing on this topic, I don't know. But that's what happened.

“The White House just keeps repeating these points that teachers should be a priority for vaccination. I don't have a problem with that. I think that would be a great thing, it’d make teachers more comfortable, might make parents more comfortable. In fact, when we were debating the budget resolution just a couple of weeks ago, I offered an amendment that would have incentivized school districts to get kids back to school after teachers had been vaccinated.

“That's more stringent than the president himself has said, more stringent than the CDC has said. But my amendment was blocked on a party line vote. Every single member of our friends on the other side voted against an amendment that would say we should incentivize financially getting kids back to school when teachers have been vaccinated. Now, a couple of my friends on the other side walked up and said, 'well, we just need to work with this language a little bit' because all of us that have kids know how important it is that we get our kids back to school.

“Democrats say we need emergency legislation to help the schools. I've been part of five bills that did that. And, we provided $67.5 billion for K through 12 schools to reopen safely. So far, states have spent just under [$5 billion] of that $67 billion. So clearly, money is not the obstacle to getting back to school. The new plan would give an additional $128.6 billion for schools according to the CBO.

“And again, only 5% of that money would be spent by the end of this fiscal year, only about $6.5 billion. The rest of the money would be available over the next seven years. Hopefully that money is not money that's designed to get kids back to school. We don't need to be waiting seven years to get kids back to school. Schools need, if they need money right now, they, first of all, should spend the money that the Congress has already provided. There's no reason to have over $60 billion still waiting to be spent if that's what it takes to get kids back to school. This probably isn't about funding. It's really a discussion about whether the schools should reopen and what else do we need to do with money that might be available right now because of this coronavirus legislation.

“We need to be sure we get back to school. Our goal should not be to keep the schools closed. If it is, why are we providing all this extra money, so that schools can reopen even though it'll be a long time before that is spent.

“I started out my career after college as a high school history teacher and then later I was a university president. I know the challenges educators face every day and the ways well-meaning policy experts sometimes miss the reality of the classroom. I also know that teachers are used to big challenges. They see them every day. They meet them every day. They do their best every day to overcome the challenges in front of them. Teachers want to help kids learn, and they don't know what to do when they can't have the contact they need to have with the kids. They know that kids won't be doing as well as they need to do, in more cases than not, until they're back to school. In a recent Axios poll, teachers said they would return to school and are ready to do that.

“It's really time for a commonsense appraisal of what needs to be done to get kids back in school. This should not be something that we wait till next fall to do. It's something that needs to happen right now. The CDC guidelines are helpful but they need to be more flexible. We need to constantly look at all the data as people are working hard to get kids back to school. We need to be sure that we understand where that's working, why that's working, how that's working. And, we're getting that information out to school districts all over America. It is time to go back to school.”

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