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Hear how Trump and Biden plan to improve education in the US
01:46 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN Host Van Jones is the Founder & Board Member at Dream Corps, a national nonprofit organization that works at the intersection of criminal justice reform, green economics and tech equity to create a better future for all. Nisha Anand is the CEO of Dream Corps. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

If former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump want to speak convincingly to the American people in their first debate this Tuesday, they need to pay attention to something both worrying and beautiful that is happening across the country.

As kids head back to school, teachers, students and parents alike are joining together to create and implement a broad range of back to school solutions. Over 56 million kids across the country are coping with socially distant classrooms, half weeks and online learning. Their parents and teachers are overwhelmed, too.

Van Jones
Nisha Anand

The worrying consensus throughout the US is that school is not going well. Everyone is struggling. But some kids are struggling even more, especially those in Black, brown and low-income communities. And everyone is coping with what feels like a lack of leadership when it comes to schools.

If we were advising the candidates, we would be screaming about this in every meeting. There are so many issues facing this country. Education is where they all meet: The pandemic, racial disparities (especially in employment and education) and our increasingly high-tech economy. It makes school challenging for all – and simply impossible for many.

The candidate who best addresses this crisis in education next Tuesday will find millions of parents listening carefully. In a partisan era, it could be a rare chance to swing votes.

That brings us to the beautiful part of this situation: all of the ideas and can-do American spirit on display. For example, #BackToSchoolSolutions, a coalition and broad movement that we are a part of, held a national day of action on September 12. It was not a national day of complaint. It was a national day of solutions. Most of these are solutions we can all get behind, no matter who we plan to vote for on November 3.

A smart candidate would jump on the big, national ideas, while praising the ingenuity of parents and teachers. In that vein, here are a few solutions we would like to hear the candidates support on Tuesday:

1. Broadband For All: According to a recent study, 42 million people across the country lack adequate access to broadband, with Black, Latinx and Indigenous households suffering disproportionately. Nearly 60% of parents in low-income households worry their kids will have trouble completing their homework in a digital learning environment due to a lack of home WiFi or adequate learning devices. We cannot allow an entire generation to be left behind, denied access to tools and resources and locked out of high-tech careers. Congress should ensure that every household in America has internet access in the next stimulus bill, through a tax credit for broadband access, funding for computers and routers and a moratorium on shutoffs by internet service providers.

2. Covid-19 Testing For All: A team of health experts crunched the numbers and found that the US needs to conduct 193 million tests each month in order to safely open schools, according to a report from the Rockefeller Foundation. The report makes an important distinction between highly accurate tests that take 12 hours or more for results, and lower-accuracy but rapid-results tests. The imperfect rapid-results tests could still be useful in quickly assessing school risks, even if they are insufficient for hospitals. The report also makes clear how much we need to do, praising the federal government for recent actions but concluding that federal efforts “do not yet amount to a national testing strategy.” Cases are already rising in areas where college students returned to campus, making it clear that more needs to be done. Instead of leaving states on their own, we need a national strategy for free tests, backed by significant federal funding, to expand our manufacturing and testing infrastructure.

3. National Tutoring Initiative: Studies show that tutoring can dramatically improve outcomes for students. But, typically, this labor and resource intensive intervention has only been accessible to more affluent families. Due to the pandemic, proposals are now on the table to expand AmeriCorps and other programs to provide tutoring for students in need. This solution is so promising that countries like the Netherlands and the UK are already funding national tutoring initiatives. In Tennessee, former Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife started the Tennessee Tutoring Corps – aimed to both help kids falling behind due to Covid-19 and increase job opportunities for recent college grads at the same time.

This back-to-school crisis isn’t something any of us would choose. But it is an opportunity to reshape our education system and make it one where the neighborhood you live in doesn’t dictate the quality of your education and the opportunities of your future.

Parts of education policy can be hot-button political issues. But we can all agree that kids should be able to continue learning during a pandemic, without risking the health of those around them – and without some kids being left behind on the basis of their race or zip code. We need to start with the solutions that will make that possible and build consensus around them.

We are proud of the people coming together to help their communities. The American people are already stepping up – and will continue to do so. People can continue sharing our #BackToSchoolSolutions and having honest and constant dialogues across city, state and party lines. But now it is time for our state and national leaders to step up as well. We do not lack solutions or a problem-solving spirit. We just lack leadership.