Public schools across the country have closed for the remainder of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic, giving students and teachers no choice but to transition to remote learning. For Seattle Public Schools, the shift to online classes has been rocky. After schools shut down, Seattle students were among the last in the region to start receiving loaner laptops from the district. Months went by in which nearly a third of Seattle students didn’t once log into Schoology, the online portal being used by SPS teachers and students. The district’s lack of preparedness was due in part to critical delays in spending taxpayer money earmarked for technology.
The lockdown order sheds light on overlooked disparities between students, especially in terms of access to computers and internet connections. In Yakima County, a survey of approximately 4,500 students in early March found that only 70 percent had home internet service or access to a hot spot. Two-thirds of the districts responding to a recent state survey reported that some of their students’ families couldn’t afford home broadband service, and 68 percent reported that some of their students live in geographical areas without broadband or smartphone data access. A major concern now is that underprivileged kids will fall behind even further with online learning.
To combat this, the Washington State Broadband Office has announced the launch of over 100 new public Wi-Fi hotspots all over the state. Director Russ Elliott explains that “COVID has redefined what should be considered critical infrastructure.”
Today, the internet and computer use are basic components of public education. All students deserve an opportunity to succeed academically, regardless of their access to broadband or smartphone data. While SPS adopted an “A’s for all” approach to grading in order to offset this problem, dissenters have criticized the policy as a cover-up for poor leadership in the district.
On the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic Educational Service District Superintendent Greg Lynch has lead discussions between school superintendents and public utility districts to identify and prioritize infrastructure projects, including residential broadband programs. The lockdown is an opportunity for infrastructure to ramp up at a necessary time, allowing for students everywhere to have comfortable access to the internet when schools open up again.
On the other hand, not all transformations that occur during a disaster are progressive. As Naomi Klein said about the larger implications of the pandemic, “During moments of cataclysmic change, the previously unthinkable suddenly becomes a reality.”
For public schools, this often means increased privatization. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Paul Vallas—who also helped establish charter schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—reconstructed the country’s entire school system through privatization. It’s unlikely something like that would happen in Seattle. Still, SPS has removed democratic oversight of contract agreements and other expenditures due to coronavirus. This means that the public has no way of scrutinizing how SPS is spending taxpayer money, and there are a lot of controversial deals on the table right now. Parents are especially concerned about the dismantling of the gifted program at Washington Middle School, which is set to be replaced with a private online enterprise.