Washington’s K-12 system was completely inadequate for the COVID-19 pandemic. While our educators have done an admirable job, too many children have lost learning opportunities that will be difficult to catch up with. The pandemic has also highlighted educational inequalities that have persisted in our public schools for decades, if not since their inception – inequalities that continue to prevent many students from achieving their true learning and, therefore, their life potential.
While talent is found in every corner of Washington state, there are currently no learning opportunities.
A new report from the Technology Alliance, titled “Learning From Calamity,” details the impact of the pandemic on Washington’s students – from a lack of reliable and affordable internet access to lost or impaired communication between schools and students’ students – whether they are teachers , Tutors, parents, foster parents, extended family or community organizations. The report also found that this crisis only exacerbated our wide disparities in learning opportunities.
Marty Smith (left) and Jessie Woolley-Wilson.
The report is sobering, but also hopeful. It makes it clear that we have a unique opportunity and we would commit to learning from this crisis and making significant changes to better serve all students, regardless of their zip code, race, origin or family circumstances.
The vast majority of our children do not have full and equitable access to educational opportunities that trigger critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, creativity, and a broader definition of literacy – information literacy, media literacy, financial literacy, and technology literacy. These are the skills we need to develop to prepare students for success in the globalized, information-driven future.
The question before us is: Can we use this crisis to create equitable, robust, and “pandemic-proof” learning environments that provide the highest quality learning opportunities for all of our students?
The first step is to understand the current problems. Up to 200,000 of our 1 million students do not have a personal learning device and more than 150,000 do not have Internet access at home. These children are disproportionately black, brown, native, come from low-income households, have disabilities and / or live in rural regions with poor connectivity. This is unacceptable and yet solvable.
Increasingly, students need these basic 21st century tools to fully participate in school, whether or not it is a pandemic. At the very least, a funded one-to-one device policy across the state is required, as is a commitment to ensuring reliable and affordable internet access for every student’s household. Internet access and basic learning devices are lifelines necessary for student success and should be viewed as a public good worthy of public funding.
We also need to invest in and expand school IT support systems to ensure that these tools are and will remain functional in times of crisis. All of these elements need to be there, not just for this emergency or the next, but because they are a fundamental part of the future of learning.
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Technology alone will not solve all of the educational problems our state faces. To do this, we must also address the inequalities that exist in our current system.
We need to change the way we think and work in order to create a level playing field. We can use the technology to create lessons that are relevant, engaging, and appropriate for each student. In class or in virtual environments, each child should feel successful and empowered on their learning journey with personalized instructions.
Classes must be inclusive and comprehensive – with black, brown, and indigenous history tied into our common American history rather than a separate lesson plan. We can and must maintain an anti-racist educational environment in which students and employees practice these values on a daily basis and build the necessary bridges. Diversity should not be managed; It should be used for the benefit of all.
Our teachers have worked tirelessly to focus on learning online – and still offer virtual lessons to this day, often with insufficient preparation. To be truly successful, they need additional training, tools, and support. The burdens of solving this crisis do not lie with them; Rather, it is up to all of us to ensure that teachers are equipped to operate in the classroom and virtual environments, and have regular exercises and plans for the next learning disorder – be it a snowy day, natural disaster, or other pandemic.
Beyond the classroom, students thrive when learner guardians are actively involved in their education. This is especially true in households where the common language may not be English. We must take this opportunity to build deeper engagement with families to ensure educational barriers are removed and caretakers have the information they need to support their students’ learning.
The solution to these problems is like a puzzle. All the necessary pieces need to be put together to create a picture that any child can grow and thrive in. There are many bright young people in whom we cannot participate – that is a loss not only for them, but also for our state. As the co-chair of the task force that produced the “Learning from Unhappiness” report, we encourage you to read the report and join us in taking action.
About the authors: Jessie Woolley-Wilson is President and CEO of DreamBox Learning, an adaptive learning platform for elementary and middle school math. Marty Smith is the founder and director of MetaJure, Inc. and a past chairman of the Technology Alliance. You are the co-chairs of the Technology Alliance’s Remote Learning Task Force, which developed the Learning From Calamity report.