Commentary: We must prepare our systems of learning for future disruptions with equitable access to opportunity

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Washingtons K-12 system was woefully underprepared 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 make up. The pandemic has also highlighted educational inequities that have existed in our public schools for decades, if not from their very founding inequities that continue to prevent many students from reaching their true learning and, therefore, life potential.

While talent exists in every corner of Washington state, learning opportunity currently does not.

A new report from the Technology Alliance entitled Learning From Calamity details the impact of the pandemic on Washingtons students from a lack of reliable and affordable internet access to lost or impaired communications between schools and students learning guardians whether they be teachers, tutors, parents, foster parents, extended family or community organizations. The report also found our deep disparities in learning opportunities were only exacerbated as a result of this crisis.

Marty Smith (left) and Jessie Woolley-Wilson.

While sobering, the report is also hopeful. It makes clear we have a unique opportunity, and wed argue obligation, to learn from this crisis and make meaningful changes to better support all students, regardless of their zip code, race, background, or familys circumstances.

The vast majority of our kids dont have full and equitable access to the 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 cultivate to prepare students for success in the globalized, information-driven future.

The question before us is: can we use this crisis to build equitable, robust, pandemic-proof learning environments that offer the highest quality learning opportunities to all of our students?

The first step is understanding the current problems. Up to 200,000 of our 1 million students lack a personal learning device and more than 150,000 lack home internet access. Disproportionately, these kids are Black, Brown, Indigenous, come from low-income households, have disabilities, and/or live in rural, low-connectivity regions. This is unacceptable, yet solvable.

Increasingly, students need these basic 21st century tools to fully participate in school whether theres a pandemic or not. At a minimum, a funded one-to-one device policy across the state is needed, as is a commitment to ensure reliable and affordable internet access for every students household. Internet access and basic learning devices are lifelines required for student success and should be considered a public good worthy of public funding.

We also need to invest in and expand school IT support systems to ensure these tools are and remain functional even in times of crisis. All of these elements need to be in place, not just for this or the next emergency, but because they are a fundamental component in the future of learning.

Technology on its own will not solve all of the education problems facing our state. To accomplish this, we also need to address the inequities present in our current system.

We need to change our thinking and how we operate to level the playing field. We can leverage technology to create lessons that are relevant, engaging and appropriate for every student. In class or in virtual settings, every child should feel successful and empowered in their learning journey with instruction that is personalized.

Lessons need to be comprehensive and inclusive where Black, Brown and Indigenous history is woven into our shared American history, and not a separate lesson plan. We can and must cultivate anti-racist educational environments, where students and staff practice those values on a daily basis and build the bridges necessary to make that happen. Diversity should not be managed; it should be leveraged to the benefit of all.

Our teachers have worked tirelessly to pivot to an online learning and to this day continue to deliver lessons virtually, often with inadequate preparation. To truly succeed, they need additional training, tools, and support. The burdens of solving this crisis are not on them; rather, it falls to all of us to ensure teachers are equipped to operate in classroom and virtual settings, with regular practice and plans in place for the next learning disruption whether a snow day, a natural disaster or another pandemic.

Beyond the classroom, students succeed when learning guardians are actively involved in their education. This is especially true in homes where the common language may not be English. We need to use this opportunity to build deeper engagement with families to ensure that educational barriers are addressed, and caretakers have the information needed to support their students learning.

The solution to these problems is like a jigsaw puzzle. All of the requisite pieces need to be assembled to complete a picture in which every child is empowered to grow and thrive. There are many bright, young minds that we dont enable to participate thats a loss not just for them, but also for our state. As co-chairs of the Task Force that created the Learning From Calamity report, we encourage you to read the report and join us in support of taking action.

About the Authors: Jessie Woolley-Wilson is the president & 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 former chair of the Technology Alliance. They are the co-chairs of the Technology Alliances Remote Learning Task Force which developed the Learning From Calamity report.

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