Our schools are in crisis. The cause is both a pandemic as well as centuries of white supremacy and oppression. As school districts across Washington State rightly choose to keep classrooms closed this fall due to public health needs, we need our leaders to do more and better to meet the needs of students, parents, and teachers, and ensure equity in all forms of education.
In Michigan, a 15 year old Black girl sits in jail for not having done her distance learning assignments. Here in Washington State, students and families furthest from educational justice bore the brunt of learning loss. Many were not given the broadband and tech tools needed to keep up with distance learning — and often faced other traumas outside of class. Meanwhile, a growing number of affluent parents are planning to use their privilege to break away from the public school system and set up their own “micro-schools,” with encouragement from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. We cannot let these and other inequities happen again this fall.
It is wrong to ask educators to risk their lives to teach our students. Districts across the state should follow the lead of those that have chosen not to reopen classrooms until it is safe to do so. As distance learning is happening again this fall in communities across the state, districts will need more resources to do so equitably, learning from the mistakes and failures of the spring. This will require local, state, and federal leaders to work together to support the full range of student and family needs.
First, Washington’s Congressional delegation needs to help provide urgent and immediate assistance for our schools and students. You can take action here to urge them to ensure there is at least $200 billion for public schools in the upcoming stimulus bill. About half of that funding would go to make up for lost revenue due to the pandemic and recession. The other half would help provide things like nurses for every school, counselors and mental health services, meals, help to clean classrooms, smaller class sizes, and resources to address inequities in distance learning. Congress also needs to provide more support for child care services and economic support for families, including extended unemployment benefits at existing or higher levels, and passing Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Paycheck Recovery Act.
We also urge Congress to explicitly exclude private schools and charter schools from getting any of this funding, as the need in public schools is dire and the last round of funding got siphoned off, leaving public schools without the resources they needed. This funding can go a long way toward addressing inequities in schools, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, and rooting out oppression in our schools.
Second, the Washington State legislature needs to begin planning now for how to help students recover from months of school closures. We cannot simply expect to turn the lights back on and open the doors to students and assume we can return to normal. Many students and families have gone through a lot of trauma and disruption since March 2020 and will need support and help to recover.
When the legislature reconvenes, they need to fully fund social-emotional learning, smaller class sizes, nurses and counselors at every school, finally and fully fund special education, and invest in ethnic studies and equity. Funding needs to include hiring family support workers from different cultural backgrounds who know these communities and students and can help do the work from the ground up. We have been calling for these investments to be made for years now. There is no further time to lose.
Legislators will also need to fund additional supports for families and students in order to address the lasting effects of the pandemic, loss of learning, and economic dislocation. We urge the legislature to call off standardized testing so that teachers can instead respond to student needs instead of unnecessary test prep.
In order to fund these urgent needs, legislators must tax the richest Washingtonians, especially those like Jeff Bezos who have gotten richer during this pandemic. This is in order to not only prevent cuts, but add more funding to address both the pandemic as well as centuries of racism.
Third, we need local districts to emphasize equity in their planning and delivery of instruction. Schools need to provide more technology and assistance in using it, especially to families furthest from educational justice. Districts need to provide more family engagement, address student mental and social-emotional health needs. Districts also need to partner with and support local child care providers and make space available when and where it is safe to do so. And teachers need to be trained in anti-racist practices, not only for the duration of the pandemic but beyond.
We also encourage districts to find ways to move money out of the school to prison pipeline and into programs and services and staffing that are rooted in restorative justice.
Distance learning is necessary to protect public health, but it will take our local, state, and federal leaders working together to support students, families, and educators to make it work — and to make it equitable. There’s no time to lose.