Thursday, August 13, 2020
Aug. 13, 2020

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Donnelly: Remote learning not for all

Many students will be left behind if they’re not in the classroom

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School boards have just days to make decisions of unprecedented complexity — how to educate kids this fall during a renewed COVID trajectory. School starts Sept. 2, and plans must be finalized at least two weeks in advance. Whatever decisions a district makes will likely bring controversy.

Selecting virtual schooling for all students may seem the safest course of action, but its long-term impacts may be the more costly for kids, their families and society.

We are indebted to those school board members, teachers and administrators who analyze the spectrum of needs and creatively devise granular alternatives. Teachers and school staff willing to undertake face-to-face teaching, if, when and where offered, will deserve the same “hero” accolades we give doctors and nurses.

We can also thank several single parents, advised by Seattle attorney Joel Ard, who filed a lawsuit in May in Lewis County challenging Gov. Jay Inslee’s extension of the claim of emergency to impose a statewide closure of the public schools. The lawsuit contends that a statewide edict violates Washington’s constitutional “paramount duty” to make “ample provision for the education of all children within its borders.”

The families bringing the suit have kids with conditions making virtual learning impractical. Their legal arguments are strong, and, possibly in recognition, Inslee has instituted a district-by-district approach to school opening. Ard has stated that the suit will be reopened if Inslee elects a statewide school policy.

In-classroom learning is essential to some students and their families, such as disabled students, students with behavioral conditions, kids learning English, and kids of single parents who must work to survive. Close by on the “needs spectrum” are kids from low-income families not able to provide the resources — internet accounts, Wi-Fi routers — needed for virtual learning or the daytime parental supervision.

Education experts are also concerned about middle school students not supervised at home. Their adolescent decisions may prove disastrous. High school students must excel to compete for scholarships, internships or other training programs. Distance learning may work well for some high-schoolers, but those with the necessary skills, resources and study habits are likely in the minority.

More concerns

Rounding out the concerns with virtual learning are childhood obesity, depression and suicide, which are associated with remote learning, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Such conditions have life-determining impacts and societal costs.

The arguments on the other side of the issue also resonate. The risks from COVID-19 to teachers, staff and family members of kids’ schoolroom contacts, though lower than in other populations, are undeniable.

At-risk teachers, staff, and students may opt out of onsite programs. Masks and excellent hygiene — valuable learning for kids — will help those teachers and students opting into classrooms where they are offered.

There are no certainties. With any school plan, COVID-19 risks cannot be reduced to zero.

Vancouver Public Schools, which recently completed a survey of parents prior to making final decisions, exemplifies the value of Washington’s district-by-district process. The school board includes experts on elementary education passionate about the value of classroom interactions. They are justifiably evaluating phased hybrid approaches fulfilling diverse student needs.

Let us hope Vancouver doesn’t yield to pressure from the Washington Education Association. On July 23, the teachers’ union called for distance learning throughout the state.

Vancouver recently announced four new staff positions to increase equity and diversity. Toward those ends, distance learning over a long time magnifies inequities, while in-classroom learning helps to close the equity gap. Ultimately, which is more costly?

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