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Legislative Watch: Paradoxes of the 2020-2021 School Year

It’s never been more apparent that schools don’t just educate; they also buoy the stability and emotional health of communities. Since July, state legislatures have introduced numerous bills to keep things afloat.

Students of essential workers at the Cajon Valley Union School District's Emergency Child Care Program on May 5, 2020 in El Cajon, Calif. (Photo: Eduardo Contreras)
Some school districts have already resumed operations and more will do so in September, but it’s anyone’s guess what the story of the 2020-2021 school year will be.

The UN has warned of the potential for long-term consequences if children are confined at home too long. Educators and parents worry that homebound students are falling behind.

Working adults who can’t afford child care have little recourse if they lose jobs because they can’t leave home. In the aftermath of the worst quarter in its economic history, it’s vital for as many Americans as possible to return (safely) to their jobs. 

None of this is enough to dispel doubts about reopening. Physician and CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta announced that he’s not ready to send his own children back to school. The American Federation of Teachers has expressed support for strikes if teachers feel not enough has been done to make their schools safe for their communities.

While online learning keeps students distanced, the performance results have been uneven. The same students disadvantaged in “normal” circumstances have been the worst served. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that students be “physically present at school.”

States have been wrestling with these issues for months. A number of bills have been put forward that specifically reference “the 2020-2021 school year,” reflecting a hope that the challenges it presents might come and go. The following are examples from mid-July forward. 

Missouri SB12 ensures that students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch will continue to receive meals even if their school is closed or if the student is receiving instruction remotely, whether by order or by choice. It establishes requirements for reporting on COVID testing and results, and sets out guidelines by which students can be included in average weighted attendance if they miss days due to illness or quarantine. 

HF49 in Minnesota changes state law to allow school boards to create and implement “flexible learning year” programs without needing permission from the commissioner of education. The term is defined as a plan that provides “forms of optional scheduling and personnel.”

SB5004, a Virginia bill, requires local school boards to employ at least one “full-time equivalent” registered school nurse in each elementary, middle and high school. It strikes earlier provisions that set ratios for the number of nurses per student, and language stating that school boards should “strive to employ” them in such proportions. 

Michigan SB1039 amends the state school code and suspends the use of letter grades to rank the performance of public schools for the 2020-2021 school year.

SB1251, in Pennsylvania, creates a committee to make recommendations regarding what should be done in regard to the testing requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 during a resurgence of the pandemic during 2020-2021 school year. In March, the U.S. Department of Education published a fact sheet on the potential impact of COVID-19 on required annual assessments of student performance under the act, stating that it might grant waivers to states in some instances.

New Jersey SB2724 establishes that for graduation requirements, a day of virtual or remote instruction is equivalent to a day of in-person attendance. It requires the Commissioner of Education to provide guidance for such things as providing remote instruction to students who may not have access to technology, the length of a virtual or remote instruction day and how remote instruction will impact school lunch programs.

Powered by Quorum. Map will update as new bills are introduced.

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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