The most popular tagline for public figures running for office in Vermont is the call to hold down property taxes, which is another way of addressing the high cost of the state’s school system.

The issue is always on the minds not only on those elected, but it also dominates school board discussions and the lives of school administrators. For good reason: we spend more per student than almost any other state.

But we may have to hit the pause button on what is politically popular and recognize that the pandemic has raised costly issues that cannot be overcome without spending more than budgeted before Covid-19 struck.

How much more is anyone’s guess, but it would be nothing but political pandering for anyone running for office to suggest that we’re going to get through the pandemic without spending more on our schools.

The question may be whose pocket, the state’s or the federal government’s. The answer is probably both.

Part of the reason is obligatory, following through on the mission to educate our children, part is the task of rebuilding what was lost, and the very real costs of getting our schools into the positions they need to be in to handle our students’ return to school.

And, yes, they have to go back to school. In-person. Vermont’s students cannot afford to lose any more in-school learning. There have been numerous studies released on the issue and every single one of them makes the same point: There are too many children at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder who do not have access to a computer or the Internet to keep up with their educational requirements. The studies also show that until a student’s mid-to-late teen years, learning remotely is decidedly ineffective. It’s also estimated that every year of education is worth about 10 percent in additional income over the course of a student’s life. Do the math.

But no one expects our schools to reopen without the necessary precautions; face masks, taking students’ temperatures, etc. That will cost additional money. Some schools will need new ventilation systems, or to revamp classrooms. That will cost money. And someway, somehow we have to address the elephant in the room, which is what needs to be done to help the students who were unable to connect remotely, or who have home environments that made the classroom experience an impossibility. For them to catch up will also cost money.

We can’t pretend that nothing happens in the classroom and that the three-plus months will be made up naturally. That’s not only inaccurate, to accept it means putting these students at a disadvantage for a long, long time. In fact, long term that approach would be the most expensive of all.

Then, there’s this: Many of our returning students will be less healthy than they were before the virus closed our schools. Those from families at the low end of the income scale didn’t have access to the nutrition schools normally provide. In general, being cooped up at home has added considerably to the obesity epidemic among children. That’s also a costly problem in the making. We already have 41 percent of our children in the first, third and fifth grades overweight or obese.

So, yes, our schools are expensive, and this year will be even more so. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

by Emerson Lynn

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