COVID-19 infections are skyrocketing in Washington. Nevertheless, strong state leadership on reopening schools safely is crucial in this moment. Right now. We cannot wait for when the surge of cases subsides, or when an effective vaccine becomes widely available. Remote learning is failing to educate so many Washington children. In-person learning must become available as soon as it is safe. State, school and health leaders must prioritize making it safe.
That is no simple task. Washington’s 295 public school districts each have unique facility, transportation, staffing and other logistical challenges to account for. Their planning today will affect how quickly children get back into class. Gov. Jay Inslee must be willing to revise the state’s initial conservative guidelines about school reopening, if the safety findings are sound.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises, states should “prioritize the reopening of schools as safely and as quickly as possible given the established benefits of in-person learning.” The American Academy of Pediatrics called for the same thing in August. In a Nov. 19 letter, Washington business and community leaders behind Challenge Seattle urged the state to commit to return to in-class learning in January for young students.
The state-level guidelines on in-person learning are not binding for local school districts in Washington’s decentralized governance system, but they provide a framework for regional decisions. School administrators can cite them to rightly concerned teachers and parents. Voters can use them to hold school leaders accountable for making responsible reopening decisions.
Elementary school classrooms pose no greater threat of spreading this virus than the surrounding communities, according to a national study by Brown University economist Emily Oster. Oster’s data set is an important part of the state Department of Health evidence Inslee is considering. Even though it includes limited data about Washington schools, the lessons of communities elsewhere are useful considerations.
Every school district must expedite all students’ return to the school building. Several families of special-needs students have sued because of the shortcomings of pandemic education.
This is only one among several ways the state has struggled during the pandemic to fulfill its paramount duty to education.
For rural and low-income students, a lack of reliably fast internet access limits the reach of remote learning, as has been well-documented. Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding and other spending have helped only partially. Children learning from home also miss the social and emotional development that peer interactions nourish, especially in young learners. Some school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, have provided child care in school buildings. If this can be safely provided, so can instruction.
The economic cost of keeping parents home from jobs to care for children who would ordinarily be eating and learning at schools is immense, too. The investment firm Brevan Howard Asset Management estimated in September that 4.3 million workers nationally would drop their jobs because of school closures.
Possibly the most damning outcome is that these burdens are inequitably experienced. Well-off families can send children to private schools that are open, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s map of districts that today are operating in-person skews heavily toward the areas of the state with the fewest people of color.
Inslee must do all he can to help Washington’s schools salvage a meaningful in-person education out of the 2020-21 school year. State-level legislation to establish reopening thresholds, such as proposed by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, can kick-start this necessary conversation. But that approach would require painstaking work to meet the challenges each district faces.
Time is of the essence to get a semblance of a solid in-person spring semester. Local school boards have been trusted with this power. Inslee must guide them toward responsibly re-establishing in-person education.