It’s June. In normal times, students, parents and teachers would be winding down the school year with thoughts of next school year far from people’s minds. But that would be a mistake.
Within the next two weeks, school districts will be making critical decisions on what the next school year will look like for more than 1 million children in the state and their families. This is an important opportunity for people to be heard on a matter of vital importance to our children’s future.
Since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools closed in mid-March, students, families and educators have been resigned to remote learning. The results of that learning have varied greatly, but virtually no one argues that the quality of instruction or learning has been up to pre-pandemic levels. It has been a lost semester for many of our children.
Even our efforts simply to connect all students to the internet came up short, especially for our low-income families. The students who were behind in their classes were the ones who suffered the greatest loss, and they are the ones most at risk if school does not begin this fall.
And that just represents the academic toll. Children have lost out on school extracurricular activities, athletics, interacting with friends, growing socially and emotionally, and the life lessons that school brings with it. Our children have borne a large share of the brunt of our response to the pandemic, and those children who can least afford to miss a substantial part of their schooling are hurt the most.
The state Constitution states it is our paramount duty to provide for the education of all children in the state. There was legitimate fear that caused the state to close public schools in March. Teachers and educators have done their best in these circumstances. But the fact is that the state did not live up to its constitutional duty to our children in the last months. Now, in balancing public health with our duty to provide for education, it is clear that the scales must swing back to open schools in the fall.
That is why it is critical to reach out to your locally-elected school board in the next few weeks to make your voice and feelings known. School districts will shortly be deciding what that next year will look like: regular in-school instruction; part-time in school, part-time remote; or full-time remote learning are all options being considered. In fact, it appears some districts are considering whether regular in-school instruction should even be an option.
In March, we knew little about this disease, and it was prudent out of an abundance of caution to close schools. But since then, we have learned a great deal about COVID-19. It is a virus that poses a heightened risk to the elderly (nearly two-thirds of deaths in Washington have been in nursing homes and long-term care facilities) and those with underlying health conditions, but very little risk to our children. Indeed, there have been no fatalities of any children or teenagers due to COVID-19 in our state. None.
Schools are a community resource. They belong to all of us. Important decisions like the upcoming school year should never be made without robust discussion and input from all stakeholders, including and especially those most directly impacted by their closure. That can be more challenging in these uncertain times, but as we’ve seen with the recent protests, it is still possible for people’s voices to be heard. School districts, please engage with your communities. And parents and community members who believe our children truly are our future, please call, email or otherwise reach out and make your preferences known.
Washington has a long and rich tradition of local control of schools. We know the best decisions are made locally, not in Olympia. Whatever your particular belief about how the next school year should look, please engage. The time to act is now.