When the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic recession hit in early 2020, everyone faced new challenges and abrupt life changes. Some individuals, families, and communities are experiencing the effects more acutely than others — and disruptions to Washington students are particularly concerning.  

“National studies indicate that interruptions in education because of the pandemic are hitting some students of color and students from low-income backgrounds particularly hard compared to their peers,” says Brian Jeffries, policy director for Partnership for Learning.

A recent McKinsey study estimates that, because of COVID-related remote learning, K-12 students could return to school in January 2021 experiencing seven months of learning loss — and losses could be greater if school buildings remain closed beyond January. The study also concludes that learning loss experienced by Black students (10.3 months), Latinx students (9.2 months), and students from low-income backgrounds (12.4 months) could be even greater.

“The pandemic is clearly magnifying educational inequities that have long existed,” Jeffries adds.

In the broader economy, communities of color, young workers, and those with a high school diploma or less are bearing the brunt of the downturn. More than half of Black and Latinx households nationwide reported employment loss due to the pandemic. The national unemployment rate in October for workers age 20 to 24 was more than 1.5 times that of workers age 25 to 54. About two-thirds of workers claiming unemployment in Washington state in November did not have a credential, a 12 percentage point overrepresentation compared to non-credentialed workers in the general population.

“A critical take-away from the current economic recession is that, more than ever, post-high school credentials are essential in our state’s economy,” Jeffries says. “As we all manage life during the pandemic, it is imperative that students continue to learn and get the supports they need to prepare for and complete a credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship, or certificate.”

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Strategies such as engaging families, partnering with community-based organizations, and using high-quality diagnostic tools can help maintain learning and support students, particularly those who are further from educational opportunity, to stay on track and work toward completing a postsecondary credential.

Supportive family involvement

As students navigate hybrid and virtual learning, both Liz Ritz, director of teaching and learning at Oak Harbor Schools, and Joycelin Vester, dean of students at North Whidbey Middle School, emphasize the importance of increased involvement with their students’ families to support academic success.

“It’s affirmation for parents to know that educators love and care about their kids and are thinking of them, even if we aren’t seeing them in person,” Vester says.

Educators are communicating with parents more intentionally and on an ongoing basis, and districts are getting creative about how they work together with parents to close equity gaps, says Michaela Miller, deputy superintendent at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

“The pandemic has created a different and more meaningful opportunity to engage with families. The creativity and innovation around parent connection are critically important in closing gaps,” Miller says.

Michaela Miller
Michaela Miller

Community connections

Beneficial relationships that contribute to students’ success aren’t limited to educators and their families. The Oak Harbor district is partnering with several community-based organizations as part of an ongoing effort to focus on equity and bias awareness. The district has established partnerships with Whidbey DIYers, the Oak Harbor Boys & Girls Club, Oak Harbor Rotary, and the Whidbey Community Foundation. Through these partnerships, the district provides students with free meals, technology, free transportation to “internet cafes” at distance-learning schools, masks, and internet hot spots for their homes.

Technology as a tool

Ritz says another lesson from the pandemic that will impact education in the long term is how to effectively use technology.

“Putting a laptop in the hands of a student or teacher doesn’t equal high-quality instruction,” she says. The district is focusing on using technology for learning engagement, enhancement, and enrichment. It also is using diagnostic tools in math and reading to understand students’ academic needs more clearly and understand progress in real time. 

Liz Ritz
Liz Ritz

Credentials are essential

Educators remain focused on ensuring that students are prepared for any opportunity they wish to pursue, whether that’s four-year college, community college, the military, or an apprenticeship. In Oak Harbor, educators are committed to providing a well-rounded education both academically and in terms of emotional resilience, self-advocacy, perseverance, and a commitment to the community.

When students return to school buildings, educators will continue to work toward these goals using the improvements they’ve discovered during the pandemic.

“As we employ new strategies to engage students virtually — particularly students who have been historically marginalized within the education system — we are relentless in working to ensure each and every students’ education is preparing them for success in whatever path they choose after high school,” Ritz says.

“Teachers and staff are to be applauded for the innovation and effort put forth throughout the spring and fall of 2020,” Jeffries says. “The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that there is no substitute for in-person instruction, nor can the full range of services, supports, and experiences provided on campus be replicated remotely. Getting students back into classrooms, assessing potential learning loss, accelerating learning, and supporting students on the road to a credential must be a priority in 2021.”

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at credentialessential.com.