We all want to return to classrooms. Safely.
Remote teaching and learning are extremely difficult for all of us — students, families and educators alike. Educators want to be back in our classrooms, with our students, doing the work we know and love, but not at the cost of lives. The state and federal governments’ lack of leadership and failure to get COVID under control are to blame — not educators. Educators are showing up every day with little resources or support, working overtime so that we can get through this together. We are dedicated to serving our students, and there is nothing more important to us than their academic growth, well-being and happiness.
Currently, it is not safe to return to schools for most given the high transmission rates, but we also know that remote education does not work for everyone and is taking a toll on the collective mental health of our community. This puts us in an untenable position.
The answer is not to rush back to in-person classrooms no matter the COVID transmission rates nor to adjust the state’s guidance in response to political pressures. While state officials are pushing districts to transition students to buildings sooner, they are not committing enough additional dollars to do so safely. It does not benefit our students to treat our educators as expendable martyrs or to force educators out of the profession. It does not benefit our students if our educators get sick or die, or if their parents and families get sick or die. While it appears most children do not have severe health issues from COVID-19, there is no consolation for those families who lose their child to this terrible disease or worry about the long-term health implications of COVID on their child.
Educators are at their breaking point and have nothing left to give. We need a comprehensive public health response to get the pandemic under control and a much greater financial investment in our public schools — now. It will take substantial state and federal funding to pay for the necessary improvements to our buildings for health and safety as well as to provide additional staffing for nurses, family support workers, counselors, social workers and smaller class sizes. We have been underfunding our schools and failing our children for too long, which has only exacerbated the current situation.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent proposed budget announcement of $400 million for school learning remediation is a start, but it does not appear that this funding will be released in time to help mitigate the costs Seattle Public Schools will incur to reopen this spring. Plus, it does not offset the large deficits districts are facing due to lower enrollments and potential lost transportation moneys. Funding from the McCleary case has helped but addressed only basic education and left huge gaps in special education, mental health, transportation and family support funds. We have been underfunding these vital services and supports in our schools and failing our children and educators for too long, which has only exacerbated the current situation.
Meanwhile, we must do everything we can to support our school communities’ mental health and to make our current remote model equitable, accessible and sustainable during a transition to in-person. This means reconsidering our academic and testing expectations, greatly increasing social-emotional supports, supporting restorative work in school communities and providing targeted supports to students who need it most. Simultaneously, we must continue to closely monitor health data and plan for the future so we are ready to return to school buildings when conditions improve.
Finally, but most important, decision-makers at all levels (local, state and federal) must listen to and be inclusive of the many different voices of educators, families and students, particularly the voices of our Black and brown community. We cannot ignore how Black, Indigenous and people of color educators, families and students continue to face the dual pandemics of systemic racism and COVID.
Educators have been and will continue to step up and do their part. It’s time for our state and federal elected leaders to do theirs.