August 11, 2020
As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our daily lives, state leaders are persistent in engaging in the tireless work to support the diverse needs of the communities they serve. In our latest installment of Governing Principals, we were joined by Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes and Iowa Lt. Governor Adam Gregg to hear more about how their states are continuing to approach this crisis, especially with school re-openings looming on the horizon.
“When and how will schools reopen?” has been one of the biggest questions on the minds of students, parents, and educators for some time now. As states are developing plans to resume instruction, they must consider a multitude of factors to ensure that schools reopen safely. Lt. Governor Barnes shared that Wisconsin is providing flexibility to local districts to make their own reopening decisions based on local needs while also providing extensive resources to support with reopening. The Wisconsin Department of Education recently released Education Forward to provide guidance for educators and school administrators in developing their school reopening plans. This resource includes methods for delivering instruction, infection control, learning considerations, how to meet socialization needs of students, and supporting families. To support reopening, the state recently allocated two million reusable cloth masks and over 400,000 infrared thermometers to public, private, and charter schools across Wisconsin. Even with these additional resources in place, Lt. Governor Barnes stressed the importance of getting the virus under control by continuing to follow public health guidelines, including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and continuing to social distance in order to ensure that schools can reopen, and stay open, safely.
“We’re navigating a dynamic environment and dealing with situations we’ve never had to deal with before. It’s important we continue to focus on the children, from an academic standpoint, with food insecurity and physical development, but also their social development.”
-Iowa Lt. Governor Adam Gregg
The unprecedented spike in unemployment due to pandemic closures has led to many Americans facing food insecurities, many of whom have never experienced this challenge themselves. To overcome this challenge in Iowa the Feeding Iowans Task Force was created, with Lt. Governor Gregg leading its efforts. The task force has focused on reinforcing food banks to improve access to food, expanding school-based opportunities for students to get the nutrition they need to learn, and raising awareness around these programs across the state.
When Iowa’s food banks had trouble acquiring food due to increased stress on supply chains, the task force created innovative programs to resolve this issue. Iowa is home to a third of the nation’s pork production, but with restaurants closing or opening in limited capacities, much of this would go to waste while Iowans faced food insecurities. To creatively solve both issues, the Pass the Pork program was established, allowing farmers to donate pigs that otherwise would have been euthanized to food banks. To date, over 200,000 servings of pork have been donated to food banks and with the success of this program, the state expanded the model to beef with the Beef Up Iowa initiative. Similar initiatives have been successful with unharvested and unsold items from farmers in Iowa thanks to a partnership with Future Farmers of America.
Another creative way that Iowa has been working to get additional support to students and families in need has been by establishing a Pandemic EBT Program that reallocates Free and Reduced Lunch funds that would otherwise go unspent directly to the families that benefit from this program. As a result, $76.2 million is being sent to families through their EBT so that they can ensure their basic needs are met.
“Going back to normal isn’t an option. Instead we have to build a better world, especially in our education system. We should be concerned about a system that fails so many. We are home to the nation’s widest opportunity gap for black and white children.”
– Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes
After nearly five months of the pandemic upending the lives of Americans, many are longing for things to “return to normal.” Through our discussion, Lt. Governor Barnes challenged the notion that “normal” is a sufficient goal to pursue. Like many states, Wisconsin is home to significant opportunity gaps for students of color, with the most significant gaps existing between Black and white students. These disparities begin from an early age, and the effects of the pandemic, especially food insecurity and the digital divide, have laid bare the gross inequities of the current system. This is particularly true for students with disabilities, whose challenges are intensified by the limitations of remote learning. When approaching school reopening, leaders must be deliberate in developing policies that address these inequities at their root and avoid interventions that are temporary or only address problems at their surface.
This is a difficult challenge, however, as the longer we wait to resume schools, the greater these opportunity gaps become. At the same time, the virus itself has disproportionately impacted communities of color, and these communities will continue to bear this burden as schools reopen. School leaders are thus in a difficult position: exacerbate the academic and social inequities of the current system or accelerate the health crisis by reopening schools.
Lt. Governor Barnes issued an important challenge to policymakers as they work through this dilemma: harness this moment of despair and be intentional and reflective in analyzing where we are, and be diligent in developing solutions that truly meet the needs of every child.
Addressing broadband access is a critical element of improving education equity in the era of COVID-19, and Lt. Governor Gregg shared how Iowa is working to build the critical infrastructure to ensure that Iowans are connected, not just for education but for business as well. As part of the Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa initiative that began in 2018, the state has been working to overcome challenges unique to rural areas, including connectivity. With the recommendations from this initiative in hand, Iowa was well positioned at the outset of the pandemic to invest in broadband connectivity. The state appropriated $5 million annually to support broadband expansion in the state’s rural areas and has allocated $50 million in CARES Act funding to tackle the issue of broadband connectivity.
Recognizing that connectivity is only the first step in successful remote learning, Iowa has also developed Iowa E-learning Central, an online resource hub to provide teachers with professional development opportunities to support their transition to remote learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also wrought significant economic impacts on the American economy. Due to decreases in revenues, states are facing budget shortfalls that have led to tough decisions for many state leaders. In Wisconsin, the Governor announced significant budget cuts to deal with this revenue shortage. In the face of these cuts, Lt. Governor Barnes stressed the importance of prioritizing providing high quality services to meet the needs of the state in education, as well as other crucial services like testing and contact tracing, housing assistance, healthcare, and food insecurity, among others. In his remarks, Lt. Governor Barnes also expressed frustration with the federal response and spoke to the need for additional federal dollars to provide continued support for states to respond appropriately in these high-need areas.
While no states are immune to these economic impacts, the severity of the challenges varies. Lt. Governor Gregg cited Iowa’s fiscal responsibility and conservative budgeting approach as the driving factor behind the state’s ability to overcome the financial impacts of COVID-19. Thanks to tough decisions made when times were good, Iowa entered the pandemic with a balanced budget, cash on hand, and a surplus from the previous fiscal year. As a result, the state was able to maintain, and even expand, its education funding, including $100 million dollar investment in Iowa’s schools, despite the budgetary impacts of COVID-19.
To hear more about how these two leaders are addressing issues in education through this crisis, checkout the full recording below.