The next great experiment in American education is underway, as school districts, colleges and universities pivot to remote and blended learning models while the pandemic wears on.
Leadership teams are working to make this transition happen as successfully as possible, both in the state of Washington and nationally. But you don’t have to look far to see that in some places it’s becoming a race to the bottom. A photo taken in a Georgia high school that was widely circulated on social media last week — students were seen standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowded hallway, many without masks — resulted in the suspension of the student who shared it and revealed how the debates around reopening and wearing masks are playing out in real-time. In response, the superintendent of that school framed mask-wearing as a personal choice, igniting further debate, and soon after the school was closed when six students and three staff tested positive for the virus.
From the president’s perspective, it seems, schools can’t open for in-person learning fast enough, and this week he welcomed Scott Atlas, former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center, to his team consisting of pandemic officials Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Atlas has made the rounds on conservative media including several interviews on Fox News as recently as last month where he has cited the low risk of fatality among school children who get the disease, blaming Democrats for turning to hysterics while ignoring the harm closing schools outright can bring to students.
“The problem here, the biggest point of all is, I never hear anyone talk about the harms of closing schools,” he told Fox’s Martha MacCallum. “The harms against the children.”
Atlas should get off Fox and tune into any number of local school board meetings if he wants to hear consideration and discussion of all the ways an extended closure of American schools may negatively affect students, never mind why it’s come to this, in order to protect the population from a fatal disease and avoid overwhelming the nation’s medical system.
A Zoom Q&A with parents and Vashon Island School District leaders Monday night was attended by more than 90 parents, families and community members all looking for answers to important questions. Parents expressed concern for their isolated, rising freshmen; whether lessons will be structured throughout the day; what if any face time students will have with their teachers, and if they can expect the same level of quality in their education; and how working families can navigate this new learning model. They were assured by Superintendent Slade McSheehy numerous times in his individual responses to each question that the district is looking at all options in order to best serve Vashon’s students.
Vashon’s families expect excellence from the schools because they’ve been promised it in the past, and even given the district’s strained resources, island students are without a doubt fortunate to attend Vashon’s schools. But even in these crucial, final days before the start of whatever academic year lays ahead — with every student deserving of a vital and robust education — uncertainty abounds.
The Seattle Times reported last week about a clash between some members of the Seattle School Board and district administrators. A front-page article detailed how some board members had proposed adding optional outdoor classes to Seattle’s schedule, and complained that the district’s plan for online education was “thin on details and doesn’t properly address concerns about the lack of engagement many families said they received from teachers last spring.”
The contretemps in Seattle stands in contrast to what seems to be a much more hands-off approach by the Vashon school board. At the last school board meeting, on July 23, only one board member, Bob Hennessey, pushed for the board to have an additional work session with McSheehy to help flesh out the district’s final plan for online school before voting on it at their next meeting, after press time this Thursday. But other board members seemed fine with letting McSheehy and other school administrators hash out all the details.
This week, at the Zoom Q&A meeting with parents in the district, McSheehy promised that one of the components of the full plan — a Distance Learning 2.0 guide —would soon be provided to community members.
We’re hoping that it also includes full communication about the day-to-day details of the upcoming school year, but also, something bigger: A robust statement of VISD’s guiding principles to provide the highest quality and equitable online education for all students, but especially students of color and those most at risk of falling behind.