Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part commentary series by Renee Henson addressing the inequities and shortcomings of an all-distance learning model of education in the Vashon schools. Her next commentary will present a case for outdoor education for island youth.
Last week we learned that the Vashon Island School District will be returning to virtual education in the fall. As a mother of four elementary-aged children (one of them being a special needs kiddo) and as a human being, I’ve felt a range of emotions: from anger and despair to understanding and empathy for teachers and administrators. The coronavirus has dropped us all into a sea of complexity which has forced our school board and administrators to make some hard decisions. At a time like this, there are, unfortunately, no easy answers.
A few weeks ago, I started an email campaign for outdoor education which I still believe could be a viable long-term solution for our schools until there is a vaccine and/or an effective treatment. As a result, I’ve been able to talk to many parents and teachers about their experiences, ideas, and fears. There is no magic bullet, but I do think we need to figure out an equitable way for all of our children to learn.
In her commentary last week, school board member Rheagan Sparks said that last spring the districts’ goal was to “do no harm” and that this year there would be more “structured scheduling and more real-time virtual instruction.” Despite the best efforts of our teachers, students, and parents, virtual learning last spring was frustrating and marginally fruitful at best. I think that the plan for more structured scheduling and real-time instruction could work in a one-child household with a parent who is devoted full-time to the academic success of their child. But for parents who are trying to juggle different subjects, different grade levels, different schedules, and assignments while policing whether or not their kids are really paying attention while simultaneously trying to fulfill the requirements of full-time employment. It’s a recipe for disaster.
I can only speak as the mother of elementary school children, but there is no replicating in-person schooling online. My 8-year-old son struggled to pay attention when he was in the classroom. I can promise you that, online, his body might be in front of the computer screen, but his mind is miles away. I will need to watch classes with him, reiterate the main ideas, and then re-teach the content when we sit down to complete any assignments. As it was in the spring, so will it be in the fall. The teachers will provide the curriculum, but the responsibility of teaching students will lie solely on the parents or caregivers.
When the schools closed in March I was trying to educate my three boys, keep track of all their class meetings and therapies, finish out my own quarter of schooling, and keep my preschooler happy and occupied. This year my daughter will be joining her brothers at Chautauqua and I will be stepping away from school so that I can focus on their education. We are privileged and we will struggle.
I have talked to parents who are both working to make ends meet. I have talked to parents who don’t have a secure high-speed internet connection where they live. I’ve talked to single working parents. What about my autistic son who can only stand about 20 or 30 minutes of online class? He will fall through the cracks if I don’t drop everything and focus on figuring out how to educate him, but what about the parents who can’t offer the same care for their special needs children? There will definitely be families who form learning pods or hire tutors — as they should if they can afford to — but what about those who cannot?
We are replicating a system of racial, socio-economic, and ableist inequity where the privileged prosper while everyone else is left to fend for themselves. What we haven’t heard from the district is an analysis of what went right during the spring virtual learning trial, what went wrong, and how they plan to fix those things. How have they assessed the needs of the community and come up with a plan to meet them? How do they plan to partner more closely with parents and caregivers so that they are empowered to educate? After a rough spring, trust will have to be built between administrators, teachers, and families.
Renee Henson lives on Vashon with her husband and four children. She has a professional background in non-profit public relations and development.