Reopening Schools: Senator Patty Murray Says Congress Needs to Step Up

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Parents, teachers and students across the country are counting the days until school is supposed to start. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Congress.

As parents panic, teachers threaten strikes and school administrators frantically plan for the coming year, lawmakers seem to be moving with the hustle of a kid who ignored his homework assignment.

The reality is that schools cannot open safely without an enormous infusion of federal cash. Many school districts already can’t afford all of the basic school supplies needed by teachers, and cannot suddenly pay for hand sanitizer, masks, cleaning services and touchless thermometers — not to mention computers, so that students can learn remotely when someone inevitably gets sick and the whole operation is shut down.

Estimates by education groups vary over how much reopening schools safely will cost, but they generally run in the hundreds of billions of dollars. This week, congressional Republicans included $105 billion for education in their new stimulus plan, including $70 billion for elementary, middle and high schools. Most of that money would be set aside for schools holding in-person classes.

Democrats, led by Senator Patty Murray, are asking for much more money: Her bill, introduced several weeks ago, would provide $430 billion to keep child care centers open, put in effect public health protocols and address lost instruction time, among other goals.

A five-term senator from Washington State who famously won her first race in 1992 campaigning as “a mom in tennis shoes,” Ms. Murray has the dubious honor of being the first working mother elected to the Senate. She’s been raising concerns about schools since the start of the coronavirus shutdowns, introducing her first legislation on the topic in March.

Now, Ms. Murray is trying to ring all of the legislative alarms, warning her fellow lawmakers that if they don’t get moving the impact will be disastrous for schools, educators, families and the entire American economy. I talked to her about reopening plans, sexism and why Congress has been so slow to respond on an issue that affects so many. (As usual, our conversation has been edited and condensed.)

I’m going to start with the question that everybody — including me — wants answers to: Will schools reopen this fall?

I will tell you, it’s the only conversation that I have. I have six brothers and sisters, all with kids and grandkids. This is the conversation.

Every single parent is asking that question and it is an absolutely critical one, but the answer to that is, how do we do that safely? How do we know our kids are going to be able to learn in a safe environment? And I will tell you, the way that the Republicans are proposing it is that you won’t get funds unless you open your school. That is a dangerous proposition, because it forces schools to open because they get money rather than doing it in a safe way.

It has to be done correctly, or the chaos and the health impacts will be huge. That is why I’ve introduced legislation to provide funds for schools so that they can have the proper sanitation, the proper P.P.E., the ability to test kids. And we need to make sure that kids can learn remotely if the schools have to shut down.

We are not ready for this. The sad answer to your question is unless we soon — very soon — make sure our schools have the resources to do this, there’s going to be a lot of mistakes made and we will be in a worse, more chaotic situation than we are today.

You introduced your first bill on this topic in March, and a second in June. Why weren’t more alarm bells going off in Congress about schools this spring? Where were your colleagues?

I think there was a lot of wishful thinking from the administration and the Republican Party that this was all going to disappear in December. Those of us who followed pandemics in the past, and just know anything about this, knew we would have been a lot smarter to plan for it.

Secondly, I think not a lot of them actually talk to people with kids at home. I know what it’s like. I feel it in every fiber of my body. I’ve been in a classroom. I have family who are teachers. I have my own daughter who’s got kids in school and is trying to work like you are. I just think that too many members of the Senate, Republicans, don’t see the urgency of that. I do not understand it. Who the heck are they talking to?

Days, weeks and months have gone by and the planning wasn’t done; the resources aren’t there. We are entering a time when there’s going to be a lot of parents in tears.

How much do you think the lack of urgency is rooted in old ideas about gender and sexism? Or do you think it’s really just ignorance about the economic realities faced by most American households?

That’s such a good question, Lisa. Unless you live it, you don’t know the stress of it. It is an unneeded stress of child care that we have in this country. I don’t know if the word’s sexism — it probably is. Women, when they go to work, do not want to complain about or express concern about child care or school because they feel, in their heads, that if they bring that up as an issue, they will be replaced by a man because it’s, quote, “easier for their employer.”

So it’s been an unspoken issue that has caused stress for families for a long time. And this pandemic has just ripped it open because not only are they dealing with the stress of schools, kids, and all that, but they’re working at home, too.

You have a daughter and two young granddaughters. Have you helped out with child care?

It’s hard because I’m on the wrong side of the country. But we talk all of the time. And I know what she’s dealing with, and I know what families are dealing with and I know how important this is. It just has to be dealt with as a country. We just can’t continue down this course.

So can you assure your daughter, your constituents and all Americans that Congress is going to give the schools what they need to reopen safely?

I’m telling everyone: I’m fighting like hell; you need to, too. It is too easy for this Republican majority to put a Band-Aid on it and assume it’s going to go away.

If I were king, we would have put the resources in place three months ago. Unless Congress comes together right now and puts the resources in place and gets it out there, I am deeply concerned about what we’re going to see this fall. In the long-term economic health of our country, it’s horrendous.

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New York State held its primary elections on June 23, more than a month ago.

Some of the key races contested that night still have not been called.

Elections officials in New York City have spent weeks counting absentee ballots cast amid the coronavirus pandemic. It’s serving as a warning about the difficulties that states may face in tabulating their results if many voters choose to vote by mail in the fall — President Trump’s unfounded claims about voting fraud notwithstanding.

But we did get an important update on one of the most closely watched races on Tuesday night.

Thanks to statements from a pair of competing campaigns, we learned that elections officials have finished a preliminary scan of absentee ballots. And we also got fresh results.

According to statements from both campaigns, Representative Carolyn Maloney, 74, the longtime Democratic incumbent in the 12th Congressional District, has widened her lead over Suraj Patel, 36, a hotel executive and business teacher who is riding a wave of youthful progressivism that has tilted New York’s congressional delegation to the left.

Ms. Maloney’s campaign said she had amassed a “decisive winning margin of over 3,700 votes.” Mr. Patel said he and his team “accept the result that has the incumbent ahead by less than 4 percent.”

In the machine ballot count after Primary Day, Ms. Maloney had led by less than two percentage points, or 648 votes. But thousands of absentee ballots were waiting to be counted.

In his statement, Mr. Patel also raised concerns about what he said were thousands of votes cast in his district, which includes the East Side of Manhattan, parts of Queens and northern Brooklyn, that had been rejected by elections officials; he also noted that he is a plaintiff in pending litigation related to the rejected ballots.

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