• By Gregorio "Kilili" Sablan

School reopening needs even more help from Congress

Washington, D.C. – With 70,106 new cases the coronavirus daily count is greater today than in March, when local officials around the country decided to close schools to protect students, teachers, and staff from the spreading disease.

The shutdown has been a terrible hardship for all.

But it has reminded us how essential schools are to life in the Marianas and throughout America. Our schools are where working parents can be confident their children are cared for.

Where families fallen on hard times know their children can be fed. Where our polarized communities find common ground cheering at sporting events and applauding artistic performances. And where the future of our nation is being formed by the knowledge and values we impart to the next generation.

We all want our schools reopened.

But as we have seen elsewhere in America, reopening too quickly, without proper precaution, in the middle of pandemic, can set us back and cost lives.

That is why I held a hearing today, as Chair of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, to ask what more Congress can do to bring America’s schools to life.

We have already provided $28 million to Marianas schools and $13 billion nationwide in the CARES Act to pay teachers’ salaries and cover the transition to an online learning environment.

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In May, the House passed the HEROES Act with another $60 billion in emergency school funding to help schools buy personal protective equipment, sanitize classrooms, and make special arrangements for students and teachers in high-risk categories, so schools can safely reopen. $81 million goes to Marianas schools.

And this month, the House passed the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act with another $130 billion that can be used to reconfigure and modernize schools to protect the health of students and staff. The Marianas would receive about $90 million.

Unfortunately, our Republican friends in the Senate have taken no action on the latest House proposals to help America’s schools safely reopen.

And the President has threatened, if they don’t reopen, he will “defund schools.”

But he has it backwards. In a national survey published Monday, 86 percent of America’s school principals said it is extremely important to get more funding, so their schools can safely reopen. Just the opposite of the President’s threat to defund schools.

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To be clear, the President has no legal authority to withhold school money Congress appropriated. And neither the President nor Congress can take on the role of a national school board, forcing schools into opening, regardless of local health conditions.

Because the coronavirus threat looks much different in places like the Marianas than in hotspots like Texas and Florida, we have to recognize that how to reopen, when to reopen, and what the proper mix of physical and virtual classroom instruction will be, is best left to local decision-makers.

What the experts at today’s hearing told us—and what I intend to keep working for—is to give America’s schools the financial resources they need, so our young people can get back to learning in a way that keeps students, their families, teachers and school staff, all healthy and safe during this terrible pandemic.

Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan is serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. He chairs the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, and is Vice Chair for Insular Affairs on the House Natural Resources Committee.

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