In rallying for the nation’s second-largest school district to transition to online instruction in the face of a pandemic, the head of Los Angeles’ public schools said this on Monday:

“We face the largest adaptive challenge for large urban public education systems in a generation. Pick your metaphor: This is the moon shot, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy landing, and the Marshall Plan, and the clock is ticking.”

So Los Angeles announced an “unprecedented commitment” of $100 million in emergency funding to get all students who need them both devices and internet access for continuing their educations online this year.

Compare to what school leaders have been saying here.

Seattle Public Schools “won’t transition to online learning,” Superintendent Denise Juneau tweeted last week. “2 things — not all students have access to internet and technology AND educators can’t just switch to online teaching overnight — it’s a specialized approach.”

“There’s just no way a district this large can do that,” Juneau said in an interview with Time magazine.

This is not our finest moment, Seattle.

How is it that Los Angeles, a district with half a million students, is attempting to keep its schooling going online during this crisis? And we are the ones barely trying.


Seattle is 10 days into a districtwide schools shutdown that will last at least another month. But so far the efforts to keep any instruction going at all have been minimal.

On Monday the district introduced some educational videos being broadcast on access cable, along with printed lesson packets, for grades K-5. But there’s been no broad effort to keep classes going. The argument is: Not everybody is digital, so digital is off the table for everybody.

Some frustrated teachers apparently are going rogue. I’ve heard from multiple Seattle school parents that some teachers have resumed some form of instruction online.

“We are thankful two of our daughter’s teachers have taken it on themselves to teach calculus and economics online,” one parent wrote me on Monday. “I fear they may be asked to stop if it is known, though.”

On Monday the state announced that all school districts must continue some form of coherent education by March 30. This is welcome, though it was the state that originally cautioned local schools it would “likely make more sense to cancel school” than to try distance learning. On Monday it sort of reversed course, saying a combination of online and offline learning could be appropriate.

C’mon Seattle, we can figure this out. Los Angeles has 10 times as many students, with nearly triple the rate that are low-income (80% of LA’s students qualify for free-lunch programs versus 28% in Seattle). How are they the ones shooting for the moon?


When LA closed its schools, it sent kids home with both online coursework and paper-and-pencil assignments. The district estimates one-third of its 550,000 students don’t have tablets or internet access, so it has been scrambling to provide both — at a cost of up to $500 per student.

It’s been seat-of-the-pants, the superintendent there admitted.

“We estimate about one-half of our students are continuing to learn at the pace they had been at school,” he said of the transition online. “One-quarter are doing OK, but additional work is needed … and one-quarter aren’t getting the learning opportunity they should be.”

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I’d guess that in Seattle, the category of “aren’t getting the learning opportunity they should be” is right now close to 100%.

The equity issues are serious and hard to solve. So maybe it could best be tackled one classroom at a time. What I mean is: Why not leave it up to each teacher to decide how best to serve their students remotely?

If a teacher has a class of 30 who all have computers at home, then do that class by videoconference. If five out of the 30 need tablets and internet access, then let’s get them the technology with emergency funding a la Los Angeles. If technology just isn’t possible for a particular class, then turn it into a correspondence course with assignments bandied back and forth by U.S. mail.

But saying “there’s no way a district this large can do that” is hard to take when Los Angeles of all places is right now storming the beaches at Normandy.


Whatever happens, it’s going to be messy and we’ll be winging it. So how about we also let the teachers throw out the lesson plans and try whatever they wish?

For example, a high school lit teacher might just choose to hold virtual book club for the next month. Since everyone has to stay apart, maybe the high schools could do a version of that old “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” program, as a way to metaphorically gather everyone together.

My pick: “Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding.  It’s about reason versus impulse, about civilization on the ropes against chaos. Seems topical, no?

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