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Educating in and being educated by the pandemic

On Thursday, July 23, the largest representative of public school employees, Washington Education Association (WEA), issued the following statement on safety first:

As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to grow across Washington, we are sadly faced with a choice between two bad options—either return to schools and put our educators, students, and community at risk or return to a distance learning and virtual instruction model.

We know that in-person teaching and learning is best for both students and educators, and educators want nothing more than to get back into schools with our students. The reality is that, with very few exceptions, we are nowhere close to containing the spread of this virus and nowhere close to being able to guarantee the health and safety of our students, educators, families, and communities.

Therefore, we cannot responsibly support a return to school buildings for in-person learning this fall.  We call on Governor Inslee to continue leading with science and safety and declare that schools will open remotely this fall.

A third bad option is that while we are coping with whichever choice is made, we fail to identify the systemic changes needed so we don’t find ourselves here again.

Both bad options—putting educators, students, and communities at greater risk for contracting COVID-19, or resorting to distance learning and virtual instruction—could have been much less bad had we made different choices about where to invest public resources leading into this moment.

We can’t address systemic underfunding of education, housing, broadband access, food security, and health care before school starts. But as we try to cope with whichever bad option is chosen, we need to remember how we got here and imagine how it can be different.

How did we get here?

One important function of government—local, state, and federal—is to organize the economy, determining how money flows between the private and the public sectors. Historically, the US has chosen to organize itself so money flows most freely into the private sector, specifically into the hands of the owning class.

The US was the only industrialized country that went into the Great Depression of the 1930s with no social insurance. We are currently the only industrialized country that doesn’t have universal health coverage for all citizens. Income inequity is greater here than in any of our economic peers: the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada, Germany, and France. The black-white income gap persists.

We find ourselves trying to address the acute crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic with insufficient tools and resources because of the policy choices we’ve made. In the 2012 McCleary decision, Judge John Erlick ruled that WA State was failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide basic education because school funding was neither “ample, stable, nor sustainable.”

In response, the State Legislature was compelled to increase funding for K-12 education. However, Washington State’s revenue depends more heavily on sales tax than any other state in the nation. In this pandemic-induced recession, state revenues are down. When the Legislature convenes in January, current projections are that they will have to reduce spending for this year, and in the next two-year budget cycle, by at least 8.8 billion dollars.

Evidence-based plans are expensive

Unlike many states, Washington State’s response to the pandemic has been informed by evidence. Early on, Governor Inslee worked with epidemiologists to figure out how to curb infection rates and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Consequently, educators have relatively clear guidance about how to open schools. For example, the current “Safe Back to School” guidelines for higher education require health checks, education on preventing the spread of COVID-19 infections, distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), the use of plexiglass or face shields in areas where social distancing isn’t possible, and contact tracing.

Safety plans need to demonstrate how students or teachers who prefer not to learn in person will be given access to learning remotely. They also need to indicate what happens if someone in the class becomes infected and in contact with classmates, requiring quarantine and deep cleaning of the spaces occupied by the infected individual.

Planning for infection prevention and implementing the necessary strategies represents a new layer of unanticipated tasks and expenses. Putting the safety plan together takes time. Purchasing adequate PPE, plexiglass, face shields, and additional cleaning supplies costs money. In K-12, bus routes have to be altered and augmented.

New ways to provide meals to students during school days have to be developed. Everyone involved is adding new tasks to their existing jobs, and everything required to prevent infection costs additional funds. Simultaneously, while a significant percentage of the funding for K-12 in our state is protected by the state constitution, higher education institutions have been told to prepare for 15% cuts at minimum because revenue projections have fallen so significantly.

Preventing a third bad option

The WEA statement identifies a choice between two bad options: remote schooling or exposure to COVID-19. A third bad option is that while we are coping with whichever choice is made, we fail to identify the systemic changes needed so we don’t find ourselves here again. The pandemic is revealing systemic inequities and gaping holes in our infrastructure. We need to elect people at the local, state and national level who are committed to addressing those issues.

Emily Lardner has been a teacher and administrator in Washington schools for many years.

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