For years to come, analysts will debate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education. Students have been learning remotely — either exclusively or partially — for more than a year, and the process has provided valuable insight to American education.
Washington schools are expected to be fully open by the fall, while still providing remote learning for students who desire it. And while Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency order to close schools in March 2020 was opposed by some, most decisions regarding education have remained up to individual districts.
“Generally speaking, I think it’s a bad idea for centralized state governments to be telling people there’s only one learning modality,” Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, recently told The Seattle Times. “That would be really bad. For the preponderance of young people, this was not an ideal situation to learn fully remote or even in hybrid.”
Reykdal held a detailed question-and-answer session with the Times, delving into some of the issues facing public education. Among the takeaways is the fact that there is still much we don’t know.
Various studies have estimated that students have fallen as much as nine months behind in their education during remote learning, with people of color and students from low-income homes most drastically impacted. An article from Vox.com in April detailed various approaches to making up for that loss, with one analyst saying, “Our tendency as a system has been to go backward and meet kids where they are. You don’t close the gaps we see in performance by holding a subset of kids back and deciding they don’t get to try grade-level stuff.”
As schools prepare to fully reopen, the difficulty will be in challenging students and keeping them engaged while providing specialized help for those who have fallen behind and need extra attention. That will add to the already complex mission of educating people of diverse backgrounds and abilities. The pandemic likely has increased the learning gap that already existed between students of means and those with fewer resources.
Since the beginning of 2021, schools have gradually expanded in-person learning and opened their doors to increasing numbers of students. That fits in with what Reykdal notes are the three biggest takeaways from the pandemic’s impact on schools: “The human contact that is public education is its great strength and we’ve got to get back to it. The second takeaway is: Kids need a whole lot more than academic content … mental health, school psychologists, food security, transportation, a caring adult. The third takeaway is the injustice that is institutional racism, it was borne out in all aspects of what we do.”
Instruction regarding racial justice has become a flash point surrounding the curriculum of schools. Reykdal said: “There are groups who want specific classes on ethnic studies or other subjects, which is entirely appropriate for a district to pick. But we would say it’s a better opportunity if those themes are represented in lots of content areas. I know it’s controversial for some people, but for me it’s just telling the complete history.”
In many ways, the pandemic is an opportunity for growth throughout the education system. Weaknesses have been exposed, particularly in opportunity disparities, and a reevaluation of how students learn is necessary.
While the state superintendent’s job is to provide guidance for districts, improvement will depend on school boards, parents, students, teachers and administrators at the local level.