The Challenges of Going Back to School

States and local governments are grappling with how to bring K-12 students back to school safely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic—whether in person, virtually, or via a hybrid model. Yet, even before COVID-19, several schools across the country had to close temporarily due to hazardous conditions in their facilities that posed health and safety risks to students, teachers, and staff.

Today’s WatchBlog highlights the issues school districts need to address to make school buildings safe and to support learning as the 2020-2021 school year kicks off.

Poor building conditions

A leaky roof or a heating and cooling system needing repair can cause indoor air quality problems and exposure to mold or asbestos.

In 2019, we surveyed public school districts and found that an estimated 36,000 schools nationwide needed HVAC updates—a key component to ensuring proper ventilation in a school building.

In addition, the potential for lead to leach into water increases the longer the water remains in contact with faucets, pipes, or other plumbing that contains lead materials. Similar concerns exist for legionella—the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. These are particular concerns for schools that are out of use for extended periods during which water in the plumbing system remains stagnant. The Centers for Disease Control recommends flushing water systems after prolonged building shutdown but we found that nearly 70% of school districts do not have flushing programs in place.

Examples of Issues with Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems in Public Schools

To learn more about our findings on the conditions of school facilities, tune into our podcast with GAO’s K-12 education expert Jackie Nowicki.

High-poverty districts may struggle to fund repairs

The poorest school districts may be least able to afford necessary updates and repairs to their schools. We found significant differences between high-poverty and low-poverty districts in both the funding sources used and the total funds available for school facilities.

Estimated Percentage of School Districts by Primary Source of Funding for Public School Facilities

Based on our analysis of federal data on school district construction expenditures:

  • Capital construction expenditures, on average, were about $300 less per student in high-poverty districts compared to low-poverty districts.
  • About 1.5 million more students attended school in high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts, yet high-poverty districts spent about $1 billion less on capital construction.

Limited internet access

For school districts opting for virtual instruction this fall, reliable internet access at home will be crucial. In 2019, we found that school-age children in lower-income households may be more likely to rely on mobile wireless service for internet access. For their higher-income counterparts, in-home, fixed, high-speed internet access was more common. Mobile wireless can be less reliable and slower than in-home fixed service, which can make doing homework challenging. These difficulties will also disproportionately affect Black and Brown students, as roughly 80 percent of students attending low-income schools were either Black or Hispanic.

Students from lower-income households sometimes used public places like libraries and community centers to do their homework online—an option that may not be available due to COVID-19 closures and precautions.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate program provides discounts on telecommunications and internet access services to schools. Schools with higher percentages of lower-income students get greater discounts, but E-rate support does not extend beyond the school premises. We recommended that the FCC assess and publish the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making off-premises wireless access eligible for federal E-rate support.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC announced a new initiative—the Keeping Americans Connected Initiative—that, among things, aims to use $16 billion in CARES Act funding to promote remote learning with the Department of Education.


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Podcast Roundup—The Federal Response to COVID-19

Do you typically tune in to podcasts during your daily commute? If so, you might have missed out on some of our latest podcasts while being housebound by the pandemic.

Catch up by checking out this overview of some of the Watchdog Report’s latest podcasts about COVID-19.

Contact tracing technology

Contact tracing may help reduce transmission rates for infectious diseases like COVID-19 by identifying and notifying people who may have been exposed. New technology, such as apps that can be downloaded to cellphones, could expedite contact tracing efforts. However, these apps also present challenges—such as adoption rates and privacy concerns.

We talked with a GAO health care and technology assessment expert about contact tracing technology and its uses:

2020 Census delays

The 2020 Census is well underway, but the pandemic is presenting some unique challenges. As the Census Bureau adapts its plans, delays and changes to the Bureau’s operations may affect Census 2020’s accuracy, timeliness, and costs. We talked to GAO experts on the 2020 Census and Information Technology to learn more.  

Emergency response

Doctors and nurses—even those that don’t work for the federal government—can help with federal response to a national emergency. The Department of Health and Human Services recently deployed about 1,200 of these professionals to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

However, HHS has experienced shortages in its supply of medical responders in the past, and has needed to rely on other agencies for help. We met with a GAO healthcare policy expert to learn more about HHS’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.

Fraud and COVID-19 federal assistance

In March, the federal government took extraordinary measures to help those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The $2.6 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, provides funds to help federal and state agencies respond to COVID-19. The CARES Act also gives loans and grants to help businesses and hospitals, and stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per person.

However, as this aid arrived, so did concerns about potential fraud. We sat down with GAO’s Director of Investigations to talk about the proper use of CARES Act funds, as well as how the public, government workers, and contractors can report allegations of improper activities.

Housing crisis

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has many households worried about paying their rents and mortgages on time. The CARES Act helps homeowners affected by COVID-19 through things like mortgage forbearance and a moratorium on foreclosures. But is there any assistance for renters? 

We interviewed our top housing expert about the impact of COVID-19 on renters.

Economic disruptions

U.S. workers, companies, and communities have often needed to alter how they work or operate because of external forces, such as trade agreements and defense or energy policy changes. But perhaps no single event has affected workers and companies like the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

We met with a GAO expert on employment and training programs to discuss federal economic assistance programs, and how they are being used to help those affected by COVID-19:

We’ll continue to cover the COVID-19 pandemic to provide you with our latest work on the federal response. You can subscribe to the Watchdog Report on Apple Podcasts.


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The Tech Behind COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Public health officials are working to contain the spread of COVID-19, in part by using contact tracing applications to help reduce transmission rates.

Contact tracing identifies infected individuals and notifies their “contacts”—i.e., all the people to whom they may have transmitted the disease. Infected individuals and their contacts are then asked to quarantine, get tested, and take other steps to reduce the spread of the disease.

Listen to our podcast with Karen Howard, a Director in GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment and analytics team, and read on in today’s WatchBlog for a closer look at our recent Spotlight on contact tracing apps and the opportunities and challenges they present. 

Contact tracing apps

Contact tracing apps use digital technology (like smartphones) to track the spread of infectious diseases. These apps detect contacts using either Bluetooth, GPS, or a combination of the two.

Bluetooth is the most common wireless technology used for contact tracing, and relies on anonymous codes shared between phones. These codes contain no information about location or user identity, which helps safeguard privacy. When a user downloads the app and comes into contact with a person who has (or later reports) an infection, the user would receive a notification such as the following: “You have recently been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

Opportunities

Traditional contact tracing methods require hundreds of thousands of trained contact tracers to identify individuals who could be exposed to a disease, contact them, and then see who they might also have exposed. 

Contact tracing apps can greatly expedite and automate this process. These apps could also slow the spread of disease more effectively because they can identify and notify contacts as soon as a user reports they are infected. And, unlike traditional contact tracing, these apps do not require users to remember or be acquainted with the people they have recently encountered.

Challenges

One major issue with this technology, however, is that some contacts are not detected or are falsely identified. For instance, Bluetooth apps may ignore barriers preventing exposure, such as walls or protective equipment, and incorrectly notify an individual of a contact even though they were not exposed to the virus. Likewise, apps may overlook exposure if 2 people were not in proximity long enough for it to register as a contact.

Low adoption rates pose another challenge. For example, some states in the U.S. may choose not to use contact tracing apps. The public may also hesitate to download these apps over data privacy concerns.

Additionally, contact tracing apps require regular access to smartphones and knowledge about how to install and use apps—which may be difficult for some vulnerable populations, including seniors.

For more about how to effectively incorporate contact tracing apps into the COVID-19 response, check out our recent Spotlight.


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Homeownership During A Recession

The current economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could make it more difficult for some people to purchase their first home, or for out-of-work homeowners to pay their mortgages.

The last recession—the Great Recession (2007-2011)—led to nearly a decade of decline in the national homeownership rate. The recession caused millions of homeowners to lose their homes and begin renting.

We recently reported on homeownership trends in 9 major American cities between 2010-2018—Chicago; Cleveland; Columbia, South Carolina; Denver; Houston; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Similar trends could occur during the current recession. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Home prices and supply

The cost of buying a home went up in all 9 cities following the Great Recession. Prices increased significantly in some cities (e.g., Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle) and to a lesser degree in others (e.g., Chicago and Cleveland).

By 2018, the cities with greatest price increases also had severe constraints on housing supply.

Notes: First quarter 2010 = 100. Index is seasonally adjusted and adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items Less Shelter in U.S. City Average.

Types of homeowners

We found that homeowners during this period were increasingly older, more diverse, and had higher incomes. For example:

  • Most cities saw growth in homeownership among households aged 60 and older, often with corresponding decreases among younger owners.
  • The percentage of minority homeowners increased in most cities. However, White households still accounted for the highest percentage of homeowners in all cities. 
  • Cities like Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. saw an increase in the percentage of Asian and Hispanic homeowners. However, no city saw an increase in the percentage of Black homeowners.
  • The percentage of homeowners that reported annual incomes of $150,000 or more (the highest income category reported by the U.S. Census) increased in all 9 cities.

Lower homeownership rates among some groups could be due to higher student loan or household debt, the inability of relatives to assist with down payments, or losing a home to foreclosure. These factors, among many others, are likely to affect home ownership during the current pandemic and in the future.

Update: This graphic was updated on July 30. The original graphic did not match the graphic title.  

Note on graphic: Because the American Community Survey reports income information in categories, we did not adjust for inflation. Estimates in this figure have a margin of error of ± 2 percentage points or less at the 95 percent confidence level.

The current recession

The COVID-19 pandemic and recession will likely have a similarly significant impact on the domestic housing market. As discussed in our recent blog posts on the CARES Act and rental housing, the federal government has taken steps to mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19 by providing mortgage relief to homeowners.

To learn more about the housing market, check out our new report.


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It’s the 30th Anniversary of the ADA. What’s Changed?

July 26th marked 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The landmark civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including education, transportation, employment, and voting. For example, the ADA has had far-reaching implications for the nation’s K-12 public school system.

Today’s WatchBlog discusses recently-issued findings about the state of school facilities, where physical barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities persist, and highlights a selection of our ADA-related work over the years.

Despite progress, most school districts report barriers

In our latest ADA-related findings, GAO conducted a nationally-representative survey of school districts and found that about two-thirds of them had physical barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities. For example, steep ramps at school entrances can make it hard for people with disabilities to safely enter. An estimated 17 percent of districts nationwide—serving 16 million students—have at least one school that may be inaccessible for students with disabilities because of physical barriers.

Note: Barriers are structural or physical features that have the potential to limit access for people with disabilities. In practice, whether a particular barrier limits access depends on the nature of an individual’s disability. Barriers such as those presented in this figure may indicate a lack of physical access, but taken alone, do not establish whether a legal violation has occurred.

GAO toured schools to document potential barriers

We toured 55 schools across 16 districts—in California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, and Rhode Island—to document physical barriers in various school areas. All of the schools that we visited—regardless of the age or condition of the facility—had multiple barriers that could limit access for people with disabilities. We observed the most barriers at schools that were more than 25 years old.

Note: Not all schools we visited had libraries/media centers, auditoriums, gymnasiums, science labs, or elevators/platform lifts. Barriers are structural or physical features that have the potential to limit access for people with disabilities. In practice, whether a particular barrier limits access depends on the nature of an individual’s disability. Barriers such as those presented in this figure may indicate a lack of physical access but, taken alone, do not establish whether a legal violation has occurred.

Better information could help schools address barriers

When asked what federal assistance might be most helpful, school district and state officials commonly cited a need for training on ADA requirements that is affordable and specific to K-12 public schools.

We recommended that the Department of Justice—the agency responsible for providing technical assistance on the ADA–work with the Department of Education to help school districts and states better understand the ADA and provide technical help tailored to public school issues and needs.

GAO’s history of reporting on ADA compliance

For almost as long as the ADA has existed, GAO has evaluated efforts to comply with the law.

  • In 1993, we evaluated access for people with disabilities to goods and services from businesses and state and local governments.
  • In 1994, we reported on accessibility challenges facing transit agencies.
  • In 2001, we evaluated potential physical barriers at polling places throughout the country.
  • In 2011, we examined how federal agencies enforce students’ rights to testing accommodations.
  • In 2017, we visited polling places to observe barriers that may impede voting accessibility.

Accomplishments in voting accessibility 

In response to GAO’s recommendations, the Department of Justice expanded its Election Day observations to include assessment of the physical accessibility of polling places. Our work also influenced the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided funding to improve the accessibility of polling places and requires voting systems used in federal elections to be accessible to individuals with a disability.


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The Role and Risk of Herd Immunity When It Comes to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the concept of herd immunity is coming into sharper focus. But with limited information available on critical aspects of COVID-19, the concept remains a murky one.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent Spotlight on the complexities of herd immunity.

What is herd immunity?

When a large enough portion of a population—say 70-90%—develops an immunity to a disease, that population is said to have achieved herd immunity. Establishing herd immunity reduces the likelihood that a non-immune person will be infected by the disease because they are less likely to come into contact with an infected person.

Once achieved, herd immunity could potentially slow down or stop the spread of COVID-19, support economic recovery, and restore medical capacity. However, achieving herd immunity in the absence of vaccines or treatments could also mean more deaths.

Why is it challenging to understand?

While data on previous disease outbreaks is available, we don’t yet have crucial data on COVID-19’s spread or severity. Consequently, researchers cannot say for certain when herd immunity is reached or, critically, how many lives might be lost when it is.

For instance, in order to determine when herd immunity will be reached, we need to know how contagious the disease is—which is affected by factors like how many susceptible people an infected person can infect. While researchers have developed estimates for how contagious COVID-19 is, uncertainties about case reporting and the accuracy of testing make this calculation difficult.

Other challenges include determining how long immunity to the disease might last. While analyses of related coronaviruses have shown that infection can provide some level of immunity, such immunity did not appear to last longer than a year.

What are the risks?

Immunity generally develops either through infection (natural immunity) or vaccination (resulting in vaccine-induced immunity), both of which carry high costs.

Achieving natural immunity, an unfavorable outcome by any measure, would mean exposing susceptible groups to a debilitating and potentially fatal disease—meaning more people could die in the process of achieving herd immunity.

Worse still, outbreaks may still occur when herd immunity is achieved because immunity may not be uniform across the general population. For example, contact among non-immune people may enable the disease to spread.

In the end, vaccine-induced herd immunity remains the more desirable goal, but, with challenges persisting in slowing the spread of COVID-19, natural disease progression may continue and with it, more deaths.

To learn more about herd immunity, check out our Science & Tech Spotlight on the topic.


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Targeting Federal Funding to Areas Experiencing Significant Poverty (interactive graphic)

Areas with high poverty rates can face systemic problems—like higher levels of crime and school dropouts—that can make it more difficult for residents to get out of poverty. To help, some federal agencies have been required to use at least 10% of program funds in counties with poverty rates of at least 20% over the last 30 years. These “persistent-poverty counties” are predominantly rural and mostly located in the south.

Legislation proposed in 2019 would expand this requirement to more agencies and programs, and also direct additional funds to census tracts (small subdivisions of a county that average about 4,000 residents) with poverty rates of at least 20% over the past 5 years. These are called “high-poverty census tracts,” and they tend to be located in urban areas.

So, which areas of the country could receive these funds if this legislation is approved? We developed an interactive map that shows the persistent-poverty counties and high-poverty census tracts in the United States. The below figure demonstrates how the graphic works (hover over an area to see additional details). Access the complete interactive graphic at GAO.gov or by clicking on the below image.

Learn more about our work on this issue by checking out our new report and podcast with GAO’s Bill Shear.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Bill Shear at shearw@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

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From Search and Rescue to Special Forces: The U.S. Coast Guard’s Many Missions

The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for conducting a number of essential activities, including protecting ports and safeguarding marine resources.

However, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard’s responsibilities have increasingly focused on homeland security missions, and it has faced increased demands on its workforce.

We’ve written a number of reports about how the Coast Guard can prioritize its resources to effectively conduct its diverse missions.

Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Search and rescue

The Coast Guard maintains over 200 boat and air stations, boats, planes, and helicopters to conduct search and rescue missions along U.S. coasts, lakes, and waterways.

However, in 2013, the Coast Guard identified 18 boat stations with overlapping coverage. In other words, these boat stations could be permanently closed without affecting the Coast Guard’s ability to effectively conduct search and rescue missions in those areas.

We recommended that the Coast Guard close these stations, which could save the agency up to $290 million over 20 years.

Maritime safety

The Coast Guard maintains over 45,000 signs, markers, buoys, and lighthouses to help mariners safely navigate through U.S. waters. But the condition and functionality of these navigational aids has declined in recent years. Meanwhile, the overall costs for repairing or replacing them has gone up—from $12 million in FY 2014 to $20 million in FY 2018.

The Coast Guard is considering ways to address this situation, such as replacing steel buoys with cheaper-to-maintain foam buoys. To ensure that these navigational aids perform effectively, we recommended that the Coast Guard develop a plan that includes its desired outcomes and milestone dates.  

The photos below show examples of deteriorating conditions of navigational aids.

Countering drugs and terrorism

The Coast Guard uses specialized forces to handle drug trafficking and terrorism threats. These forces often rely upon similar skill sets, so most of the specially trained units can perform similar (if not the same) missions.

We found that this can potentially result in overlapping responsibilities and underused units. Officials from some units we interviewed said that they experienced periods when they weren’t being used fully, while other similar units turned down operations due to a lack of available personnel.

We recommended the Coast Guard assess the extent of this unnecessary overlap to potentially save money and streamline its specialized units.

Assessing needs

Since the Coast Guard’s responsibilities have grown, the agency recently told Congress that it doesn’t have enough people to meet all its mission demands.

But we found that the Coast Guard doesn’t have a complete picture of its workforce. For example, it has only assessed the workforce needs (both number of people and types of skills) for 2% of its units.

We recommended the agency bolster efforts to complete its workforce assessments so that it can ensure that it has the right number of people with the right sets of skills to meets its needs.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Nathan Anderson, andersonn@gao.gov
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

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Prioritizing the Needs of the Federal IT Workforce

The federal government spends over $90 billion on information technology (IT) every year. However, IT projects frequently fail, go over budget, or face unexpected delays. Additionally, threats to federal IT infrastructure continue to grow in number and sophistication.

Federal agencies can improve the success of these projects, as well as the government’s ability to mitigate and respond to cybersecurity threats, by ensuring that their IT staff has the required knowledge, skills, and abilities.

However, we found that federal agencies have not made planning for their IT workforce a priority—despite 20 years’ worth of laws and guidance that have called for them to do so.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how federal agencies could improve planning for the needs of their IT workforce.

Identifying IT staff

The federal government needs a qualified, well-trained cybersecurity workforce to protect vital IT systems. To help agencies identify their critical workforce needs, they were required to identify and categorize all of their IT and cyber-related positions.

However, most of the agencies we reviewed likely miscategorized the work involved in many positions. For example, 22 of 24 agencies assigned a “non-IT” code to about 19% of their IT positions.

Unless agencies improve how they track and code their IT and cyber workforce, they may not have the necessary information to effectively examine their cybersecurity workforce and identify critical workforce needs.

Following key practices

We developed a framework in 2016 that federal agencies can use to plan ahead for the needs of their IT workforce.

This framework focuses on 8 essential activities, including:

  • Implementing a workforce planning process
  • Assessing gaps in skills and staffing
  • Developing strategies and activities to address these gaps (e.g., using special hiring authorities to hire staff with required skills)

In October 2019, we found that federal agencies varied widely in their efforts to implement such activities.

Specifically, many of the 24 agencies we reviewed had made progress in assessing gaps in skills and staffing—but most had not developed strategies to address these gaps. Additionally, most agencies had not fully implemented a workforce planning process.


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When it comes to taxes, there’s a transparency gap in the gig economy

July 15 is the deadline for tax return filing and payments and the same deadline for estimated quarterly payments. Workers in the “gig” economy face unique challenges to fulfill these obligations. Today’s WatchBlog looks at a large subset of the gig economy, platform workers who offer goods or services —such as transportation, retail, or short-term lodging— and connect with customers through an app on a phone or other online platform. Studies suggest there could be as many as 1.5 million to 2 million platform workers in the U.S who do this type of work.

Platform workers may be affected by COVID-19 as their customers either increase (package delivery) or decrease (rentals) use of the service. In addition, it is uncertain how many platform workers may receive either the economic impact payment or unemployment benefits available from recent legislation to assist workers during the pandemic—an issue that GAO is currently reviewing.

How do platform economy workers and companies pay taxes?

Unfortunately, platform workers may not realize that a company is treating them as independent contractors rather than employees, and as such, these workers have different tax requirements. For example, platform companies generally don’t withhold federal income or employment taxes for independent contractors. Instead, the worker is supposed to pay these taxes each quarter to the Internal Revenue Service.

Additionally, a platform company that only transfers funds between buyers and sellers may have reduced reporting requirements.  As a result, GAO found that platform workers may not get information on their earnings, which makes it difficult for them to comply with their tax reporting requirements. It also creates enforcement challenges for IRS. The below graphic shows how workers in the same job might have different tax responsibilities under a platform economy vs. a typical employer.

What is the IRS doing to help platform workers?

To help raise awareness, the IRS developed a communications plan focused on workers in the platform economy (which IRS calls the gig economy), which is a good start.

Still, GAO identified seven actions that could help improve tax compliance for workers. For example, some platform companies only report total annual payments for workers over $20,000 and 200 transactions—an amount well over the average gross pay from a single company for many platform workers. Changing the rule to lower reporting thresholds would provide workers with more information to help them comply with their tax obligations. GAO is also recommending that IRS allow voluntary tax withholding. Be sure to check out the full report.


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