When school began last fall, we had no idea what was ahead for us. The COVID-19 pandemic left our students, families, educators and school administrators scrambling to respond. It was stressful and difficult for all of us. Though we all did our best, many people, including educators, found distance learning as it rolled out was less than satisfactory. We must do better this fall. And we can’t let politics get in the way.
Now President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are threatening to cut funding unless we fully reopen with in-person instruction, without regard for safety. The Washington state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, Department of Health, and Labor & Industries have provided scientifically based guidance for safely reopening schools. Districts across the state are making decisions about which model to offer in accordance with that guidance. Very few districts are finding that five days a week of in-person instruction is safe or appropriate given the increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
No matter the model, Washington Education Association and our local associations are advocating that school administrators guide their decisions based on what is best and safest for students and educators. Health and safety must remain the priority. Science and guidance from health experts must direct and inform reopening decisions. Schools must employ effective screening and cleaning protocols and provide protective equipment to keep students, staff, families and communities safe. We’ll need more school nurses to provide health checks and monitoring, and custodial staff to clean and sanitize buildings.
This pandemic has laid bare inequities across society, including in education, where educators struggled to reach, let alone teach, many students. Districts must create practical, achievable plans to effectively engage students of color, low-income populations, immigrants and English learners, special education students, homeless students, foster youth or others for whom the system is not working.
The federal funding that Trump is threatening to cut is dedicated to help these very students. Taking that funding away would widen the opportunity gaps these students face. The administration’s threats are reckless and harmful.
We know that reopening schools will take more funding, and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has yet to step up and provide significant assistance. In addition to keeping schools clean, it is imperative that we provide counselors, mental-health professionals and social workers to lift students and families who may have experienced illness, job loss, housing insecurity and racial trauma. Supporting these services takes both increased state revenue and federal assistance.
As we plan for fall, district administrators must work collaboratively with local associations to ensure that return to school plans prioritize health, safety and equity, while providing the resources to support student success. And our state and federal lawmakers need to dedicate the resources it will take to keep our students safe.