Washington’s public schools earn mixed marks for their pivot to distance education. Closing school buildings and retooling long-established routines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus was a heavy, if necessary lift.
As Washington’s K-12 students and their families adjust to remote learning, the state’s ability to provide educational equity is being tested. The lessons of this scramble should inform systemic improvements over the longer term.
While school districts swiftly and safely resumed nutrition services and opened child care for critical workers after the shutdown, instruction is proving a stickier problem. School closures exacerbate educational barriers for some students. They expose the inequities of a public school funding system that still leans too heavily on local taxpayers and private donations. Efforts to overcome these challenges are complicated by community resource and infrastructure gaps, particularly broadband internet access in some parts of the state.
A month after school buildings were shuttered and two weeks after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal directed schools to resume educational services, many districts have yet to offer special education instruction, as The Seattle Times reported last week.
While some technology-rich districts are well into remote instruction, others still are working to identify and meet needs for technology and internet access, and to train staff, teachers and students to use remote- learning tools. Still other districts are relying on pencil and paper, sending work packets home for students because they cannot meet tech needs.
Schools are working on creative solutions in an effort one community partner described as “all hands on deck.” Districts are soliciting donations of funds and equipment, loaning out classroom and library computers and setting up Wi-Fi hot spots. State education leaders are working with public-television stations to broadcast lessons over the airwaves, an OSPI spokeswoman said. Washington State University is helping distribute mobile hot spots. Other partners are stepping in to help, including Amazon, which announced it will donate 8,200 laptops for Seattle students.
At the same time, youth advocates fear many of the state’s most vulnerable students are falling through the cracks.
Students experiencing poverty, who are homeless or in foster care, immigrant students and many students of color may be facing additional challenges, such as lack of dedicated workspace, child-care responsibilities or housing instability. Caregivers of English-language learners may not have the language skills necessary to help students with their work. Engaging all students and helping them access the resources they need to be successful must be an integral part of every district’s continuous learning plan.
Schools and other leaders must get this right, not only to deal with the current crisis but to prepare for potential resurgent waves of COVID-19 or future pandemics. Additionally, success now could increase student access to learning throughout the school year and even help avoid snow-day or other interruptions to the school calendar.
Crisis or not, Washington state’s constitutional responsibility remains to educate all students. If anything, this spring’s experience exposes the shortcomings and the work that remains. This historic disruption to public education, and the long recovery, presents an opportunity, and a challenge: To rebuild a public school system designed not only to be nimble, but also equitable to the core.