Federal lawmakers came through for Washington’s public K-12 schools with nearly $2 billion in new pandemic relief last week. But state leaders should require districts to open classrooms to students before releasing the funds.
A similar incentive seemed to work with the last round of federal stimulus. At a news conference Friday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said 271 school districts had submitted the revised reopening plans he required before releasing relief money approved by the U.S. Congress last December. Those districts are expected to begin claiming their share of that funding this week.
As of Monday, Seattle Public Schools and 30 other districts still had not submitted acceptable reopening plans. They’ll have to do so before claiming their share of both the second and this latest round of stimulus, said Office of the SPI spokeswoman Katy Payne.
But Reykdal should up the ante. Gov. Jay Inslee has directed all Washington school districts to begin offering hybrid instruction to elementary students by April 5, and all K-12 students by April 19. Actually opening school buildings is a more appropriate benchmark for districts to meet.
Washington is expected to receive more than $1.85 billion, around $1,668 per student, in K-12 emergency relief funding through The American Rescue Plan Act, according to an analysis by the Learning Policy Institute. State leaders will distribute the funds, which will be available through September 2023. Signed into law by President Joe Biden, the act requires school districts to spend at least 20% of their allotment to help students catch up from the “learning loss” they suffered during a year of remote instruction. But stronger guardrails are needed to ensure districts make the most of this historic federal assist.
Despite scientific evidence, proven successes of in-person learning and months of cajoling, a handful of public school districts still have failed to transition to safe hybrid or in-person instruction this school year. For Seattle Public Schools, stalled union negotiations have twice delayed the start of in-person instruction for the district’s youngest and most vulnerable learners.
While some students have thrived in remote learning environments, others have suffered. State data show a spike in absences for middle school and high school students this school year, Reykdal said at a news conference last week. During the fall semester, 25% of the state’s high school students failed or didn’t earn credit for at least one class.
Swedish Medical Center has seen an extraordinary increase in emergency department visits and inpatient admissions for children and adolescents with psychiatric and mental-health issues, said Dr. Nwando Anyaoku, Chief Health Equity Officer at Swedish in Seattle. “And we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Anyaoku said.
If those troubling trends aren’t enough to urge recalcitrant districts, perhaps the promise of a hefty check from the U.S. treasury could be the kick in the pants they need.