It was early March when the Northshore School District abruptly canceled classes, joining some of the first districts in Washington — and the nation — to close due to coronavirus concerns.
Northshore, district leaders said, had everything under control.
To some, that’s how it felt. The district boasted of its preparation in “moving teaching and learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.” Teachers spent a day preparing to take their lessons virtual. Students who needed a laptop or mobile hot spot could get one at school.
But after initially moving its classrooms to the cloud, the district suddenly hit pause on digital learning less than a week after the closure. In a March 12 letter to families, Superintendent Michelle Reid cited “issues of equity,” including special education, as her reason for halting their distance learning program.
Amy Amirault, with four kids in the district, immediately noticed a shift in the tone of parents on social media. The burst of mutual support turned to finger-pointing at the students seen by some to be holding the rest of the kids back.
One day later, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all schools to close through late April.
As Washington ends its fourth week of shuttered classrooms, superintendents here and nationwide might learn from Northshore’s early days: Despite the district’s careful plan, a tangle of state and federal regulations and concerns over digital equity and access created confusion. Northshore’s neighbors similarly spent weeks weighing the dilemma of trying to teach all students, or no students, remotely. The answers have not been simple.
And after much deliberation about whether issues of equity and access should prevent instruction from occurring at all, the state ultimately mandated teaching from a distance — whether districts were ready or not.
But on March 12 Reid didn’t know what was coming from the state. Her choice to halt e-learning prompted online comments that started to single out students with disabilities, like Amirault’s eldest son, Daniel Sabol, who has autism.
“The blame sort of fell on them,” she recalled during Northshore’s third week without school. “People were asking, ‘Why should we all bring ourselves down to the lowest common denominator? Just figure something else out for those kids,’” Amirault said, emphasizing “those.”
After Inslee’s statewide school closure order extended Northshore’s initial plan to resume in-person classes after two weeks, Reid committed her district to finding a solution.
“We’re going to continue providing services for all children as best we can,” Reid said on March 19. As for online learning, “that’s not a continuation of 100 percent of these services for any student, to be honest.”
Doing “the best we can” is the goal — and challenge — Inslee set for districts Monday when he extended the school closures through the rest of the academic year. “In the next several weeks our K-12 schools are not going to be the best they’ve ever been but they can be the most creative, they can be the most dedicated,” he said.
In other words, any attempt at instruction is a trade off.
Inequities not new
Though the circumstances are unprecedented, none of the issues is new. The closures are exposing some of the public school system’s age-old warts.
“These inequities existed two months ago when we weren’t dealing with coronavirus,” said Reid. “And this situation is just really illuminating those in a big way.”
When Inslee first shut down all of Washington’s schools on March 13, many districts attended to the most urgent tasks within days: food distribution and child care. Bus drivers handed out meals. Community partners, including churches and youth clubs, offered to expand after-school programs to full days. Middle schoolers volunteered to babysit.
At first, Inslee and state education officials were unclear about their expectations for remote instruction. But by last week, when the governor extended the closures, he had made up his mind: Districts had to try their best to reach all students through distance learning. Even if it meant some students would get less education than others.
Northshore tried to regroup. As the district raced to relaunch online instruction by the state’s March 30 deadline, teams met virtually to create new digital plans. Teachers spent the following week connecting with students to prepare them.
On the first day of what Reid called “Northshore Learns v 2.0,” classes resumed for Amirault’s other three children in the district’s schools. But not for Daniel. “So far, there is nothing set up,” Amirault said on the afternoon of March 30.
Amirault described Daniel, 14, as mostly nonverbal. He has difficulty holding conversations — online or in person. Certain sounds on a computer can send him into “screaming and sobbing fits,” she said, and a visual that catches his eye may make him demand to watch a tutorial again and again.
Before everything changed, the most he’d done on a video call was to wave to grandma. Online education was unlikely to work well for him.
By Wednesday, April 1, it was finally Daniel’s turn to join his first class on Zoom – a brand-new skill for him and many of his virtual classmates. “It was a mess,” Amirault said. “The call ended after a lot of screaming and tears.”
Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit, offered free support to schools during the closures. Co-founder and principal Andrew Rotherham urged patience as districts go completely remote in a matter of weeks.
“It’s early days,” Rotherham said. “The questions we’re getting are 1.0, and I don’t say that pejoratively. We’re still on step 1 or 2 here, and people already want to have arguments about step 12.”
“Fast and unique” conditions
Districts citing special education students as the reason online learning won’t work frustrated Rotherham, who noted that in debates about school funding or accountability, children with disabilities are often blamed for systemic shortcomings.
“The real reason a lot of school districts can’t do this right now is they’re not well positioned for this,” he said. “People need to appreciate just how fast and unique the situation is. No one should jump on a school district for not having a plan.”
Seattle didn’t initially have a plan, either. When officials there made the call to close all schools on March 11, they said the district would not offer online education.
Instead, staffers arranged about 6,500 packets and books that went home with families at 26 meal sites on March 23. And the district started airing lessons on its TV channel. But negotiations with the Seattle teachers’ union stalled any formal plans for distance learning.
Similar patterns were seen across the country: In late March, most of the 82 closed districts surveyed by the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) weren’t offering any instruction. Only four were providing formal curriculum, online instruction and progress monitoring. By April 3, that number had risen to 10. And a week later, 19 districts were on board. In total, 30 of the 82 districts in the sample were offering some amount of instruction by April 10.
The hesitation to try online education was due in part to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on March 17, the day all schools closed in Washington.
A webinar and fact sheet issued by the Office for Civil Rights reminded school leaders of “their legal obligations to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, can access online and virtual learning programs.”
For some superintendents, including Reid, that raised concerns about potential discrimination lawsuits and losing millions in federal funding if the devices and platforms they planned to use didn’t accommodate every student receiving special services in a brick-and-mortar school. Decisions similar to Reid’s in other states prompted U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to release new information on March 21.
“Nothing issued by this department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction,” DeVos said in a statement.
In Washington, where local control reigns supreme, the state finally stepped in two days after DeVos’ new statement — that’s when the state superintendent’s office changed its tune and began requiring online learning.
Meanwhile, on March 25, the Seattle district reached an agreement with its union and charged teachers with delivering “educational services to our students to the greatest degree reasonably possible.” Later, Amazon donated 8,200 laptops to help Seattle students learn online — though gaps in technology and connectivity at home remain.
“It’s OK to take it slow, learn new systems, and provide each other some grace and kindness,” Seattle schools’ superintendent, Denise Juneau, said on social media on the day of the state deadline.
For special education students, accessing instruction in a physical classroom is hard enough. Distance learning amplifies those challenges. How to reach students without laptops at home, without stable internet connections at home, or without homes, is also still mostly an open question.
In Federal Way Public Schools, 20 miles south of Seattle, Superintendent Tammy Campbell doesn’t believe her district can ever go 100 percent online. Two-thirds of her students come from low-income families, 22 percent are learning English, and nearly 800, or about 3 percent, live without stable housing – raising questions about where students would connect to Wi-Fi, let alone charge their devices.
“This is bigger than K-12 if you’re going to address equity,” said Campbell, who urged a statewide approach to distributing technology. “In Washington state, every student will need a laptop and access to Wi-Fi. It shouldn’t be dependent on a district. Some won’t be able to pay for that.”
State schools chief Chris Reykdal agreed. But he doesn’t necessarily see a need for the government to spend billions on connectivity at home — unless school closures last a year or longer.
“We should be thinking about internet connectivity as a utility right now,” he said. “We would be horrified if 30 percent of our families didn’t have electricity or water in their homes.”
Reykdal said he hoped other states could learn from Washington, and he emphasized the past few weeks here have made it clear that schools aren’t equally able to serve every student.
“Every inequity we had in the face-to-face model is magnified when you do it at a distance,” he said. “Now we’re seeing how unprepared the nation is.”
Even before Inslee extended the closure of Washington’s schools though the end of the year — if not longer — Reykdal had already started thinking about what this current crisis will mean for the future. Scrambling to find patchwork solutions is not a situation he wants Washington to repeat.
“Candidly, we’re going to get over COVID-19,” Reykdal said. “But if nothing else, let us learn that there could be a COVID-22, a COVID-25, a COV ID-30. Someday, we’ll face this again.”
If digital equity hasn’t improved by then, Washington may relive the chaos that 1.2 million students have felt in March of 2020.
This story about digital equity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.