July 23 (UPI) -- With widespread concern about COVID-19 and the next school year just weeks away, House lawmakers heard from experts and officials Thursday at a hearing examining how to safely reopen public schools nationwide.
Members of a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee heard testimony from Dallas Schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa; Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn; Leslie Boggs, president of the National Parent Teacher Association; and Dr. Sean O'Leary of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The issue of reopening schools for the fall has been complicated. President Donald Trump said earlier this month resuming classes is a top priority and he's threatened to defund schools that remain closed. Health experts, teachers and parents have all voiced concern about reopening schools too soon, particularly after a recent resurgence of cases nationwide.
"All of us want our schools to reopen for full-time, in-person instruction as soon as possible," subcommittee Chairman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, D-Marianas, said in his opening statement. "That fact is not up for debate. The question is: What must Congress do to help our schools get students and faculty back into classrooms safely?"
Sablan said schools are struggling to safely reopen because of President Donald Trump's "failed response to the pandemic."
"There is still no testing and contact tracing strategy or science-based plan that we know other countries are using successfully to combat COVID-19," he added, calling for "a nationwide strategy to contain the spread of the virus and a significant federal investment to help schools take necessary safety precautions."
Ranking Republican Rick Allen of Georgia, however, praised school reopening guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year and echoed Trump's call to withhold funding for school districts which do not fully reopen for in-person classes.
"That is why this morning I introduced the Educational Flexibility for Families Act, legislation that requires K-12 schools to provide an option for students to safely attend in-person classes for the upcoming school year in order to be eligible for any federal assistance," he said.
Hinojosa said adequate federal funding is needed to make schools safe enough to fully reopen, pointing to the $3 trillion HEROES Act, a coronavirus recovery bill passed by the House in May, which includes roughly $58 billion for local K-12 school districts.
"To ensure that public schools can successfully weather these challenges, Congress should continue to demonstrate its support with passage of the HEROES Act currently approved in the House and pending consideration in the Senate," the Dallas schools chief said.
Boggs said the PTA is opposed to any school reopening plans being "hoisted" onto parents without "meaningful engagement" with them and other stakeholders.
"Parents know the value of in-person instruction and want their children to be in school this coming school year," she said. "However this must be done safely and effectively and with engagement of all stakeholders, especially parents and students."
"It is alarming that the Trump administration is preventing the CDC from appearing before the committee at a time when its expertise and guidance is so critical to the health and safety of students, parents, and educators," committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., answered last week.
"This lack of transparency does a great disservice to the many communities across the country facing difficult decisions about reopening schools this fall."
The administration has also limited congressional access to other top officials who are coordinating the federal crisis response, on the grounds that they need to focus on containing the virus.
Wednesday, however, Redfield said he would "absolutely" feel comfortable sending his own grandchildren back to school.
"It's really important to get our schools open," he said. "I'm 100 percent that they can get back to school."