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Reopening Schools

Floor Speech

Date: Feb. 24, 2021
Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. BLACKBURN. Madam President, I know that some of my colleagues have been talking about schools, getting children back to school, getting schools reopened. Indeed, in Tennessee, that is a topic that has received a good bit of conversation. All but two of our school systems have been open and working this entire school year, and those other two systems have recently reopened since the first of the year. Our school superintendents, our directors of school, our parents, our teachers, and the students have all worked together as a team--a solid, cohesive team--to make this happen.

I think there are two main points that we have seen, and as we are holding meetings with our county elected officials and city officials and as they talk about the efforts that they have made in getting children back into the classroom, we hear a lot about one point. That is that our Governor, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, made it clear that the school districts would be responsible for the ``how'' they were going to open and the ``when'' they would be reopening. I really thank him for listening and recognizing that local officials and individuals in the community really do know what is best for their school districts and their students.

The second point is that these plans didn't just drop out of the sky. As I said, this has been a team effort in our communities, and it has happened because there was this agreement between the administrators and the parents and the teachers that they were going to make decisions that were going to be best for the children. So when you look at Tennessee and how they have approached this--indeed, the schools reopening and how they proceeded--it was done with the children in mind.

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with school administrators from West Tennessee, who played a part in developing their own reopening plans. I cannot adequately describe to you with the time that we have on the floor today the amount of work and the thoughtfulness that they put into these schedules, from health and safety considerations, to scheduling changes, to the complicated logistics of social distancing and cramped classrooms. They thought it all through by walking through the day and listening to what teachers and parents had to say as to how they would walk through this day.

They took the millions of dollars in CARES Act funding that the area received, and what did they do with that money? They invested in the best possible plan for these kids--no Federal mandate or sweeping litmus test required. They said: We are going to do what is right by these children.

Then, of course, they turned on the TV, and they saw that the Biden administration was busy walking back their own enthusiastic scientific guidance on safely reopening schools--walking it back--and they didn't have to flip too many channels to figure out why. Powerful teachers unions had taken their own stands in refusing to make a plan, in refusing to think things through, and in some cases in refusing to go to work at all--not doing what is best for the children but doing what was going to serve their interests first and, in their opinions, what would best serve their interests. That, I think, they will see were regrettable actions.

Educators in Tennessee were not just confused by what they saw; they were insulted because they knew exactly what was happening. On January 26, CDC officials released a study showing that, if we were careful, safe reopening was indeed possible. Administration officials touted that report as a light at the end of a very long COVID pandemic, but now, just a few weeks later, those same officials are defying their own experts, insisting that safe reopening can only happen if Congress approves additional funding contained in the Democrats' latest, untargeted spending bill.

Students in this country are suffering. They are lonely, they are bored, and many of them are struggling with clinical depression and anxiety. Teen pregnancy, teen alcohol, and suicide rates are rising. Children need to be in in-person school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly stated--bear in mind, this isn't something that I am saying; it isn't something that is partisan; it is the American Academy of Pediatrics--that it is not only feasible but necessary for students to be back in school, back in the classroom, back to seeing their friends, back to participating in extracurricular activities and sports.

I would ask my colleagues across the aisle to keep this in mind when they hear from so-called stakeholders who are willing to hold a child's mental health hostage in exchange for a political win that will serve their power and their purposes and not that of the child's. They might have powerful voices in the cable news circuit, but those sound bites will provide you no cover back home with the teachers and administrators who have rolled up their sleeves, have gotten to work, and have figured out a way to get schools open for the children.