Fifth graders wear their face masks and are separated by plexiglass as they do their class work at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y., on May 18.

Fifth graders wear their face masks and are separated by plexiglass as they do their class work at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y., on May 18. Mary Altaffer / AP

Lawmaker Pushes Federal Agencies to Allow Schools to Use Their Buildings

Measure is aimed at allowing children to return to in-person learning faster.

One lawmaker has come up with a potential solution for helping get children back to in-person learning in a physically distanced environment: put them up in federal buildings. 

The 2021 Leasing Every Available Real Property Now (LEARN) Act (H.R. 3418) would authorize the General Services Administration, which manages most federal property, or other agency heads to rent out their federal buildings to local governments for schooling. The measure would target buildings located near existing elementary or secondary schools for the rentals “for the purpose of expanding in-person education.” Many federal buildings have significant open space, as a 25% maximum capacity instituted by the Biden administration remains in effect and large portions of the federal workforce are still not reporting to their normal duty stations. 

“Millions of American children have lost over a year of quality, in-person education due to COVID-19,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who introduced the bill. “This will ensure schools across the nation have every resource available to get kids back in class and get our country back to normal as quickly as possible."

The measure would allow GSA or individual agencies to enter into lease agreements below market value, so long as the federal government recovered its costs. Local jurisdictions would be responsible for utility payments but could use all furniture and other items in the building. Each agency and the GSA administrator would face a requirement to review all of their properties and identify which may be available and suitable for schooling and advertise those properties in the Federal Register

Local governments would be authorized to use funding they received as part of emergency COVID-19 relief to rent the space. 

In addition to the reduced use of federal buildings due to the pandemic, federal agencies have for years contemplated what to do with excess properties. The Obama administration identified 14,000 excess federal buildings and an additional 55,000 that were under- or unutilized. Obama in 2016 signed into law a measure to require GSA and the Office of Management and Budget to better track unneeded federal buildings and streamline the process for disposing of them. It also created the Public Buildings Reform Board as an independent agency with the sole purpose of reducing the federal government's property inventory.

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