With an additional $2 billion in pandemic relief approved last week for Washington K-12 schools, state officials should incentivize in-person learning. Districts should be required to open classrooms before the federal funds are released.
Increasingly, data show that remote learning is not working for too many students. Although some are thriving while attending classes from home, many are struggling. During the fall semester, one-quarter of the state’s high school students failed to earn a credit for at least one class on their schedule, and instances of stress-induced mental illness have spiked among teenagers.
A disruption of routines, along with a lack of peer contact, has resulted in learning loss and emotional difficulties for students of all ages. Meanwhile, evidence indicates that having students in school requires precautions but is not a strong driver of coronavirus spread.
The American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion recovery initiative signed last week by President Joe Biden, includes more than $1,600 per student in Washington. That money will be distributed by state officials to districts through September 2023. Under the law, at least 20 percent must be used to help students catch up on the curriculum following a year of remote learning.
State officials must work to ensure that districts are making the most of the federal assistance; the disruption in education will have lifelong impacts on students, and efforts must begin now to mitigate those impacts.
That includes getting students into classrooms on at least a hybrid schedule, with some days spent in school buildings each week and other days spent on remote learning. As the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics said in January: “Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being, and so safety in schools and in the community must be a priority. We know that some children are really suffering without the support of in-person classroom experiences or adequate technology at home.”
In Clark County, most districts have adopted some form of hybrid learning. In Vancouver Public Schools, for example, high schools welcomed students this week for the first time in a year, and many elementary schools have been open for several weeks. State officials should make that a prerequisite for districts that desire a share of the federal funding.
Such an incentive was employed by the state with the last round of federal pandemic assistance, which was approved in December. Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal required districts to submit revised reopening plans before claiming their share of that funding, and some 271 districts had complied as of last week.
In some districts, including Seattle Public Schools, pushback from teachers’ unions has delayed the opening of schools. The concern – that teachers will be at risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 – is valid, but is diminishing in importance. Schools have been demonstrated to not be superspreaders of the disease, an increasing percentage of the population is being inoculated, and teachers have priority status for receiving the vaccine.
While teachers’ unions must advocate for the members, districts and state education officials must make students their primary concern. At this point in the pandemic, it is difficult to argue that students are best served by keeping all learning online.
If districts hope to receive a share of the federal funding, they should do what they do best – teach students in classrooms.