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White House COVID-19 Official Speaks to Urban Educators

  • At the Council of the Great City Schools’ Legislative Conference held last month, Mary Wall recalled that two years ago, in March when she was working as chief of staff for the New York City Department of Education and the nation’s largest school district with 1.1 million students, she had only one week to prepare before going into fully remote instruction.

    “We were still holding onto our seats [saying] we don't have devices for all these kids, we don't know if we have internet yet for all these kids and we don't have robust platforms set up online for all these kids,” said Wall. “It was a terrifying weekend.”

    Wall, who is now the White House senior education policy advisor on COVID-19, marvels that two years later 99.9 percent of schools are fully back in person and that the number of schools closed recently due to COVID-19 is only in the double digits, compared to 7,500 schools that closed in January of this year.

    She said that while there are still schools closed at any given point in time, the situation is night and day from a year ago and credits the infrastructure and mitigation strategies school administrators have put in place.

    “It has not been perfect, but you have really done so much to make sure that you've given opportunity to children who need that opportunity at a time where it would've been a lot easier for many people to have not tried,” Wall told urban educators.  “So, thank you for all you've done.”

    An Unprecedented Moment

    Wall noted that the nation recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and that the $122 billion in the legislation provided to schools offers “an unprecedented moment” for education in the nation.

    She said that 60 percent of school districts have indicated they are investing federal funding in staffing, with record numbers of social workers and guidance counselors being hired, and that there is a clear prioritization in spending plans developed by school districts on mental health, both for the workforce, as well as for students.

    “It’s been heartening to see that there have been great examples of this occurring in school districts across the country,” said Wall. “And not just in hiring additional mental health staff, but also in making sure that there is explicit instruction and explicit professional development for social emotional learning and in trauma-informed practices in school districts.”

    Wall told conferees that the Biden Administration recently launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, that calls on building owners and operators, including schools, to adopt key strategies to improve indoor air quality in their buildings and reduce the spread of COVID-19. She said that school systems should use ARP funds to support making ventilation and filtration upgrades.

    COVID-19 testing

    Wall praised school districts that are testing for COVID-19 and believes it’s important for school districts to continue on the path of having a testing infrastructure in place, even when districts don’t think they will need it.

    She told conferees that there is $10 billion allotted to school districts from their respective state health departments for testing and districts should use that money to purchase either over the counter or PCR tests to detect COVID-19 cases.

    “If you already have a good thing going with a lab for PCR based testing, please keep it up,” Wall urged. “It’s great data to have and will also help you to know and detect the virus before it spreads.”