Washington Education Association calls for school year to begin with distance learning

Group demands safety first in any plans to return to school this fall

The Federal Way-based Washington Education Association (WEA) issued the following statement July 24:

“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 Gov. Jay Inslee to continue leading with science and safety and declare that schools will open remotely this fall.

Coronavirus puts our whole school community at risk

Statewide, more than 120,000 public educators are in school buildings each day. They are our teachers, bus drivers, librarians, office staff, para educators, food service workers, nurses, counselors, therapists, and countless other professionals who support and serve our students. We know that nearly one out of five are over 60 years old, and many have underlying health conditions. We also know that more students than ever live in multi-generational homes, and many themselves also have underlying health conditions. If we proceed with opening schools for in-person learning while the number of cases continues to grow, some students, educators, and family members will contract the virus. Some will recover. Some will have long-lasting health complications. And some will die. These are the facts and they cannot be denied.

Transmission rates are getting worse

COVID-19 is a highly contagious, deadly disease and the role of children in the transmission of this virus is constantly evolving. Washington state just recorded the greatest number of new daily cases since the onset of the pandemic, a rate far worse than in March when we initially closed schools. Sadly, after nearly five months, we are not flattening the curve. Instead, the number of new cases is increasing at a rate that indicates it is not safe to return to schools. We still do not have the ability to trace, test, to the degree necessary, or guarantee that the necessary PPE will be available for both students and educators.

We must prepare for quality distance learning

For these reasons and more, at this time we are calling for the 2020-21 school year to begin with distance learning and virtual instruction. We call for this while recognizing that some small and rural districts have not yet been impacted by the virus. We believe that the time between now and the beginning of the school year must be spent preparing educators to teach remotely, not on hybrid models or planning for in-person teaching. Making this decision now will give school districts and educators time to prepare and focus on a singular model of instruction and to better prepare for the challenges that a distance learning model will bring.

Plans for fall must address racial, social and economic justice

Distance learning last spring shined a bright light on the inequities that have always existed in both public education and in society as a whole. We know that there were too many students that were not served, with a disproportionate number being students of color, students in rural areas, students experiencing homeless, and students with IEPs. African-American, Indigenous, Latinx, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people face disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and death. Structural racism and economic inequality mean people live with economic and social factors that force many to the front line of this epidemic. School districts must invest now in the resources necessary to deliver high quality distance learning, including professional development for educators, connectivity for both students and educators, and caring trained professionals to support families through this challenging time. In addition, it is imperative that a focus be placed on students furthest from educational justice and on building an anti-racist educational system. For our schools to be able to continue to educate our students, districts must provide for additional counselors, family support, nurses, and mental health supports for both our distance and in-person learning.

Success will take collaboration

WEA is committed to continuing our work with the Governor, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Department of Health, and the Department of Labor and Industries to develop updated guidance that reflects the changing COVID-19 landscape, including metrics that can be used to determine when schools will be safe for in-person learning. Educators will continue to bring our front-line experience to the table as our local unions bargain and collaborate with our school districts. In addition, we also expect our national, state, and local leaders to work with us to provide the necessary leadership and resources to make sure that when we do return to school buildings it is done in a way that recognizes and protects the health and safety of all students, educators, families, communities. During a crisis, we require more resources, not fewer resources. Districts need additional resources – including school-based COVID-19 testing – for both educators and students. In addition, we call on Congress to pass a comprehensive package to support districts and local governments, including federal aid for families to assist with childcare, child nutrition, technology, connectivity and Higher Education.

We must act now

We believe that there is no more critical calling in this country than fulfilling the right of children to receive a world-class educational experience, and it remains the constitutional paramount duty of the state to provide for that education. High quality distance learning can exist, but we need the resources. At the same time, we also need to ensure students’ safety, as well as the safety of those who serve them. The best way to move toward reopening school buildings is for everyone in our community to follow the best guidance from our public health officials and do their part by wearing masks and practicing social distancing and good hygiene. Temporary changes in how our schools provide education and how our students learn are far preferable to the permanent loss of the lives of students, educators, and their family members.”