At the end of a year of pandemic learning, Washington’s top education official, Chris Reykdal, says one question has occupied his mind more than any other. What flaws did the pandemic expose in how Washington children are taught in school?
He’s also thought about why the state’s education system responded slowly as the pandemic hit. Why some students still aren’t showing up for in-person learning. And why he disagrees with eliminating online education when the pandemic fades.
The Seattle Times sat down (virtually) with the superintendent of public instruction to talk about all the ways the state’s education system was shaken during the pandemic — and how he intends to get back to some version of “normal” next school year.
This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
How will your department use equity as a lens to rethink K-12 curriculum — and what lessons did you learn during the pandemic and racial justice uprisings about how to reframe what students are learning?
One of the opportunities here is to remind everyone in a classroom, whether they are the social studies or civics teacher, or the science teacher or English language arts or anything else, that they can bring this lens of justice to their work.
There are groups who want specific classes on ethnic studies or other subjects, which is entirely appropriate for a district to pick. But we would say it’s a better opportunity if those themes are represented in lots of content areas. I know it’s controversial for some people, but for me it’s just telling the complete history. It’s not rewriting, it’s not doing something different. It’s that these histories have been there for a long time. But if you use traditional textbook(s), for example, you won’t get the richness and complexity of an event.
In what ways did the pandemic expose flaws or weaknesses in Washington’s education system?
It’s probably the thing I’ve thought the most about. I can confidently tell you that my answers are grounded in what I believed pre-pandemic as well. The pandemic magnified things, but we have way too many state agencies governing K-12 … it’s expensive. I don’t think it’s the system we would design from scratch.
Last March when we actually had the shutdown, all of these things had to come together: what do we do about assessments, accountability, contact hours, credit hours, graduation pathways … all of that just suddenly reared up in the middle of a crisis and we were trying to get through decisions very quickly. Thankfully the governor (Jay Inslee) was incredible through this … but it didn’t change the fact that it took a long time to get to hard decisions because there were just too many regulators.
The big take-away at the local level was twofold. How much we lost in human contact, that really did have a toll … But we also learned that we can be more innovative with the way we deploy content.
Young students needed more support to stay on track during pandemic learning. How will your office support K-3 teachers, students and families as we get back to in-person learning?
I think (K-3 students) were the most flexible students. For a lot of them, they hadn’t known any different … But it was definitely harder to do reading supports and reading interventions remotely, and unfortunately we don’t have a measure of that yet. We challenge districts to focus on K-3 literacy because it’s such a key benchmark for us … so we wanted them to make it a priority and I believe that they will.
At this point, 90% of those federal (pandemic relief) dollars are coming to (districts) to make those decisions. Where did they see struggle? Was it more in K-3? Was it more in the secondary system? I think we have pretty good indication that attendance in both late middle school and early high school was a big challenge. It was a much bigger challenge than elementary school.
What do you make of decisions in New York and New Jersey to prohibit online learning in the fall? What is a realistic model for hybrid or remote learning in the future?
Generally speaking, I think it’s a bad idea for centralized state governments to be telling people there’s only one learning modality. That would be really bad.
For the preponderance of young people, this was not an ideal situation to learn fully remote or even in hybrid. So our presumption is that we’re coming back, but unlike New York and New Jersey, we’re telling districts you will be open five days a week to accommodate all the families that want it. But you may create these other opportunities (such as online learning).
What do you say to families who have lingering concerns about returning to schools for health or equity reasons?
We are still primarily and will always be focused on the health and safety of students and staff. We wouldn’t make this hard press to be back in school in person unless we thought we could do it very effectively.
They (parents) really have to make the best decision for their family and for their children and I really respect that. We will have safe environments and we strongly encourage them to come back to school because we think that is, on balance, the better learning platform for almost all kids. But they still get to make that choice.
Our job is to make sure (alternatives to in-person learning) are as robust.
Youth mental health concerns became increasingly prevalent and severe during the pandemic. How do you envision a path forward for youth in crisis — and the role schools might play?
We are requiring districts to do social-emotional and behavioral health screeners (to assess how children are doing).
We are like little cities in all these school districts. They are comprehensive in nature and they are designed to be that way. And for most kids, that’s the best place they can be. And that will do more to address the issue than anything else. That said, we don’t think there’s enough money for behavioral health. And we’re likely to use some of our discretionary federal funds to try to beef this up even more.
Each school might not need a full-time school (psychologist) but when they need somebody, there’s got to be a phone number to call. Whether it’s a community-based provider, a county provider or an educational service district. So we’re looking at some regional models to help that.
As the state’s top education leader, what are your guiding principles as you think about learning recovery?
No. 1 is to know your students. You can’t really think about intervention strategies, recovery strategies, acceleration strategies unless you know who is going to benefit most from that.
Tell us how you know, what are your instruments for knowing. And I do think you are going to see quite a bit of summer school … You’re going to see supports and interventions during the summer for more kids, some of whom will need intensive, long-term (services). And some just need that math boot camp, or a little bit of reading catch-up.
Can you reflect on the three biggest lessons you learned over the past year?
The human contact that is public education is its great strength and we’ve got to get back to it. The second take-away is: kids need a whole lot more than academic content … (they need) mental health (support), school psychologists, food security, transportation, a caring adult. The third take-away is the injustice that is institutional racism, it was borne out in all aspects of what we do. So from grading practices to technology connections … this persistent income inequality, which is really a derivative of history practices around race and injustice, it all manifests itself in the schools.