Clark County’s largest school districts have already announced hundreds of furloughs in anticipation of rising costs and declining revenue stemming from the novel coronavirus.
“I get the dynamic,” said Brett Blechschmidt, chief financial officer for Vancouver Public Schools. “I believe once you make the decision to redshirt your child, you don’t reverse that decision two months into the year or halfway through. Heaven forbid we’re in remote for an extended period.”
‘It takes a village’
As the school year approached, Kati Emerick’s anxiety grew.
Emerick was facing continuing her part-time job at the Vancouver Community Library, supporting her son at school and, eventually, making sure he didn’t bring the coronavirus home to her immunocompromised parents.
Oliver was anxious too. He peppered her with questions about the virus, and told her he was afraid of making his grandparents or classmates sick.
“I said ‘I promise I will never do anything that I think is not safe for you,’ ” Emerick said.
Then Emerick heard from a friend who had decided to home-school her child. It got the gears turning for Emerick, who never would have seen herself as a teacher before the pandemic. She reached out to her sister-in-law, Chelsey Martin, and to her parents to see if they could piece together a classroom for the boys while continuing to work.
Library employee Emerick would offer her expertise in reading and art. Martin, who works at the Washington State Department of Transportation, would take math and science. Emerick’s father loves the outdoors and would take nature walks with the boys, and her mother would supplement reading and writing.
“I mean, it really takes a village,” Emerick said.
The type of learning pod Emerick and Martin built is growing in popularity during the pandemic.
The New York Times in August reported an influx of private companies pairing teachers with families for their personal classrooms, while Facebook groups for families in “pandemic pods” have exploded.
But when those families leave public schools, they take their dollars with them. Schools in Washington are funded on a per-pupil basis. When enrollment drops, funding drops.
Meanwhile, Washington faces a $9 billion budget shortfall, raising alarms about potential statewide cuts to public schools.
David Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at the University of Washington College of Education who studies school finance.
During the Great Recession, state funding reductions more severely affected low-income school districts, he said. Richer districts that could rely on local levy dollars to supplement their funding fared better, Knight said. He warned the same scenario is likely to happen here.
“That decline in state funding is likely to disproportionately impact high-poverty school districts, and districts that serve higher percentages of Black and Latinx students,” he said.
T.J. Kelly, chief financial officer for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said some districts have asked for help in the form of a hold-harmless provision to protect funding despite the sudden enrollment drops. That relief, however, would have to come from state lawmakers.
“When we cross over into the realm of paying state dollars for kids that aren’t enrolled, that’s really where we feel our authority ends and the Legislature needs to provide an assist if they would like to,” he said.
At Vancouver Public Schools, Blechschmidt isn’t holding his breath.
“The message has been resoundingly clear,” Blechschmidt said. “(Districts) keep going to the hill and lobbying, but I think they’re hearing there’s no special exceptions.”
Vancouver father Dave Bennett is keeping a bingo card for his daughter Amelia’s virtual kindergarten class at Fircrest Elementary School.
So far, he’s marked children picking their noses, leaving their audio unmuted at inappropriate times and siblings popping into the call. Unmarked (so far) are parents working out in the background, students or parents wandering around without a shirt on, and cursing.
“It was a great experience if you love chaos,” Bennett wrote on his Facebook page after the first week of school.
Bennett’s daughter is hard of hearing and has cochlear implants. She still struggles to process sound, however, so receiving instruction virtually has been a struggle for the 5-year-old and her father.
“She gets about 50 to 75 percent of the instruction,” said Bennett, who has taken a leave of absence from work to sit with his daughter during school. “The rest I have to explain to her and repeat to her.”
Rhian Allvin, chief executive officer for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, warned that young students could suffer in a virtual learning environment. It’s difficult, she said, to replicate the motor skill development, the relationships, the emotional learning and more from a screen.
“We know, particularly for young children, a lot of learning is centered and built on relationships,” she said. “You can’t do it over a Zoom call.”
On the other side of the screen, teachers are struggling to replicate a school environment for their kindergartners. Jennifer Gay, a veteran teacher at Martin Luther King Elementary School, is doing daily check-ins with her students, asking how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. She’s built in structured playtime, encouraging her students to bring their favorite toy to their Zoom calls so they can play together while separated by a screen.
“Most of kindergarten isn’t sitting and writing with paper and pencil,” Gay said. “We use real books. We use toys. That is a huge, huge hurdle we’re trying to figure out.”
Bennett’s daughter is struggling to focus as well. Of the 11 homework assignments they were given last week, she was only able to complete one, Bennett said.
“You have to click on the assignment, click to move through a different app, watch the video, do the homework,” he said. “There’s no way Amelia could figure this out at 5.”
Gay’s classroom is small this year, only 14 students. She’s worried about the declines in enrollment, but is optimistic that once they’re back in the classroom, parents will begin to return.
“I hold hope that as soon as we go back, it’ll change,” she said. “I know those kids are out there and those parents are worried about the situation. I know they’ll be back.”
‘Once the virus is over’
In the oppressive everythingness of 2020, there’s something to be said for the simple joy of crossing a task off your to-do list.
Mavric Martin, 5, gets it. He, cousin Oliver Emerick and his 3-year-old brother, Hendric Martin, pored over math workbooks at Chelsey Martin’s kitchen table on a recent afternoon. For each page he completed, Mavric returned to the front of the book to color in a star marking his progress.
“Let’s do the sixes, then the sevens, then the eights,” Mavric announced, reviewing number-writing practice pages.
For Oliver it was Friday at Aunt Chelsey’s house on a recent, clear afternoon — prior to the wildfire smoke rolling in.
“I miss when it was just the pandemic,” Emerick said last week.
The Martins live on a small farm near Battle Ground. Under the right conditions, it offers plenty of opportunities for the nature theme central to the family’s curriculum. The boys had spent that morning counting chickens, rabbits and pigs. That afternoon, they’d head to space in an imaginary rocket ship, gathering far too many tomatoes from the Martins’ garden for the journey.
Both the Emericks and the Martins intend to enroll their children in public school once things have stabilized, whenever that may be. Emerick is enrolling Oliver in Evergreen Public Schools’ home-school connections program, which will give her access to some school resources and allow the district to count her son for budget purposes.
“I didn’t want the staff to suffer because of lack of funding,” she said.
The boys are looking forward to the day they can learn in a classroom. They’ve been scrapping more than usual, unable to run around outside to burn off some energy. Mavric said he misses his friends from preschool. Still, this 5-year-old views the future with enviable optimism.
“One of these days, when the virus is over, I’ll see them again,” he said, coloring in another star in his workbook.