Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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In Our View: Safely reopening schools a difficult balancing act

The Columbian

One of the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic has been the uniqueness of it all. With the virus being previously unknown, mitigation efforts have been created from scratch, amounting to little more than a best-guess scenario. Responses need to be adjusted as information increasingly becomes available.

When schools closed for in-person learning a year ago, we didn’t know much about either the coronavirus or how well children could learn remotely. A year later, we know a lot more, and it’s evident that the dangers of failing in classes are more pressing than the danger of children contracting COVID-19.

As detailed in an article by Columbian reporter Meg Wochnick, many students are struggling with remote learning. Gleaning lessons through computer screens and spending the school day isolated from peers is a new experience that is not working for far too many students.

This is not surprising; since the beginning of the pandemic, anecdotal evidence and common sense have indicated that the system is not effective for everybody. But the impact detailed by empirical evidence still is startling.

Among high school students in Vancouver Public Schools, for example, 50 percent of students were failing at least one class as of November. In Evergreen Public Schools, the rate was 43.8 percent of students.

Those numbers are more than double the rate of failures the previous year, before the pandemic hit and schools were closed.

Teachers report that sporadic attendance, connectivity issues and disengagement have contributed to students’ struggles.

Many parents are well aware of these difficulties. Even Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, noted in November that one of his children is “struggling mightily in classes, that never would have been the situation if they had been face-to-face. … I would never design a school system around remote learning.”

Notably in Clark County, districts report that remote learning is more difficult for low-income and minority high school students, with failure rates higher than average. Washington education leaders have spent much time in recent years addressing educational equity, but that work is being undermined by the disparities evident in remote learning.

Phillip Pearson, first-year principal at Woodland High School, said: “The kids who are in less-affluent homes are the ones being most catastrophically impacted. (Remote learning) is a magnifying glass to those disadvantages. It just really brings it out.”

As additional information is culled regarding the impact of distance learning, fears about the cure being worse than the disease are compounded. Teenagers and young adults are, indeed, susceptible to COVID-19, but evidence shows they typically are not as affected by the symptoms as adults.

While all of this suggests that high school openings should be expanded for at least a combination of in-person and remote learning, it is imperative that teachers and staff be near the front of the line for vaccinations.

Safely opening secondary schools is not only about students; it also is about protecting others in the building — and their families. As recent infection rates demonstrate, much work remains to bolster communal health.

That represents a difficult balancing act for officials at the state and district levels. But as one administrator in Vancouver Public Schools noted, the district will have more than 300 seniors who do not meet graduation requirements if current trends continue. That calls for some quick adjustments to the current system.