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Amy Amirault’s son, Daniel Sabol, 14, works on a puzzle during a districtwide closure of Northshore schools near Seattle. The school district paused online instruction amid concerns about how to support students with disabilities, including Daniel. Photo courtesy Amy Amirault

The Northshore School District, in an upper-middle-class suburb of Seattle, was among the first in Washington state – and in the country – to close due to the coronavirus. Less than a week after the March 5 closure, one Northshore parent, Amy Amirault, noticed a shift in the tone of other parents on social media. “We’re in this together” quickly turned to finger-pointing at “those kids,” one of whom was her eldest son.

Amirault’s son Daniel Sabol, 14, has autism. She said he was essentially nonverbal and had difficulty holding conversations – either online or in person. Certain sounds and songs on a computer can send him into “screaming and sobbing fits,” she said, and a visual that catches his eye may make him demand to watch a tutorial again and again. Before now, the most he’d done on a video call was to wave to grandma. Online education was unlikely to work well for him.

On its website and in letters to families, the district initially boasted of its preparation “to move teaching and learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.” And in statements to the media, Northshore pledged to make that transition as seamless as possible for everyone, including students with disabilities.

55.1 million – students in the U.S. out of school (public and private) due to coronavirus

Problems arose right away.

“Our team in the Special Education Department continues problem solving issues and concerns from parents and guardians,” Northshore spokeswoman Lisa Youngblood Hall wrote in an email as reported by The Seattle Times on March 9. 

Three days later, on March 12, Northshore’s superintendent, Michelle Reid, decided to hit pause on her “classroom to cloud,” citing “issues of equity” including “special education services, food and nutrition, English learner services, and child care.”

That’s when the online comments started to single out kids who, like Daniel, were in the district’s special education program, Amirault said.

“The blame sort of fell on them,” she recalled during Northshore’s third week of no school. “People were asking, ‘Why should we all bring ourselves down to the lowest common denominator? Just figure something else out for those kids,’ ” Amirault added, emphasizing “those.”

As every state now deals with schools that have been shuttered to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many district leaders have joined Northshore’s struggle to figure out how – or even whether – to provide virtual learning for the estimated 55.1 million kids out of school.

Expanding e-learning districtwide raises thorny questions about digital equity and access, especially for students with disabilities, children living in poverty and those who are homeless. This has forced school leaders to ask, “If we can’t teach every student equitably, should we be teaching any at all?”

In Washington state, districts have spent weeks weighing the dilemma of trying to teach all students, or no students, remotely. The answers have not been simple. But early lessons from the first center of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. could offer a preview of the ongoing questions that will consume the nation’s public schools for months, if not longer, as the temporary closures appear likely to last through the rest of this academic year and potentially into the next. And though the circumstances under which these questions are being asked now are unprecedented, none of the issues raised is new.

“These inequities existed two months ago when we weren’t dealing with coronavirus,” said Reid. “And this situation is just really illuminating those in a big way.”

Related: Parents of kids with disabilities worry coronavirus quarantine will mean regression

Just over a week after Northshore closed, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the closure of all public and private schools through at least late April. The March 13 order threw the lives of 1.2 million children and their families into disarray. Nearly half of those students rely on schools for subsidized meals, leaving districts little time to make contingency plans to deliver food to families who needed it and prioritize child care for essential workers.

“These inequities existed two months ago when we weren’t dealing with coronavirus.”

Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District

Within a day of the governor’s emergency proclamation, some districts had already begun with the most urgent tasks: food distribution and child care. Bus drivers were enlisted to hand out meals. Community partners, including churches and youth clubs, offered to expand after-school programs to full days. Middle schoolers volunteered to babysit.

As for whether districts should be offering remote instruction, the governor was less clear.

“If schools can do that, that would be great,” the governor said during a March 12 news conference. “But we can’t create an expectation of that, given the disparity in access to the internet [at home] and other financial conditions of the districts.”

Finley Amirault, 4, watches his older brother, Jacob, 9, on the computer at lunchtime as the family spent a third week at home with Northshore schools closed. Photo courtesy Amy Amirault

Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit, has offered free support to schools during the closures. Co-founder and principal Andrew Rotherham urged patience as districts figure out the logistics of trying to go completely digital in a matter of weeks.

“It’s early days,” Rotherham said. “The questions we’re getting are 1.0, and I don’t say that pejoratively. We’re still on step 1 or 2 here, and people already want to have arguments about step 12.”

Districts citing special education students as the reason online learning won’t work frustrated Rotherham, who noted that in debates about school funding or accountability, children with disabilities often get cast in the role of the straw man.

“The real reason a lot of school districts can’t do this right now is they’re not well positioned for this,” he said. “People need to appreciate just how fast and unique the situation is. No one should jump on a school district for not having a plan for this.”

Related: Online higher education isn’t winning over students forced off campus by coronavirus

Seattle didn’t have a plan, either. When officials in Washington state’s largest district made the call to close all schools on March 11, they said the district would not offer online education. Teachers had less than an hour before kids left that day to prepare packets of worksheets for them to do at home.

Some staff came back the next week and arranged about 6,500 packets and books that went home with families at 26 meal sites on March 23, the Monday of the second week of closures. The district also started airing lessons on its TV channel. But negotiations with the Seattle teachers’ union stalled any formal plans for distance learning.

Coronavirus and School Closures (2020, March 6). Education Week. Retrieved April 2, 2020 from The Northshore School District was among the first in the nation to close, according to Education Week’s historical data.

As of that same Monday, many Washington districts still had no plan to teach kids.

Similar patterns were seen across the country: In late March, most of the 82 closed districts surveyed by the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) weren’t offering any instruction. Only four were providing formal curriculum, online instruction and progress monitoring. By April 3, that number had risen to 10. And a week later, 19 districts were on board. In total, 30 of the 82 districts in the sample were offering some amount of instruction by April 10.

The hesitation to try was due in part to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on March 17, the same day all schools closed in Washington.

“This is bigger than K-12 if you’re going to address equity.”

Tammy Campbell, superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools

“If you’ve seen the [federal department’s] direction, you would correctly assume that would have an impact on any school district,” Northshore’s Reid said.

A webinar and fact sheet issued by the Office for Civil Rights reminded school leaders of “their legal obligations to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, can access online and virtual learning programs.”

For some superintendents, including Reid, that raised concerns about potential discrimination lawsuits and losing millions in federal funding if the devices and platforms they planned to use didn’t accommodate every student receiving special services in a brick-and-mortar school. Decisions similar to Reid’s in other states prompted U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to release new information on March 21 and to express her disappointment that districts would use the initial guidance “as an excuse not to educate kids.”

“Nothing issued by this department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction,” DeVos said in a statement. “We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear.”

digital equity
Jacob Amirault, 9, smiles at his laptop after connecting with a classmate he had missed since the Northshore School District closed on March 5. Photo courtesy Amy Amirault

In Washington, where local control reigns supreme, the state finally stepped in two days after DeVos’ new statement. While noting many districts had already started teaching kids again in some fashion,  Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, put the others on notice, saying his office expected “educational services for all students will begin by Monday, March 30.”

Meanwhile, on March 25, the Seattle district reached an agreement with its union and charged teachers with delivering “educational services to our students to the greatest degree reasonably possible.”

“It will take a while for all of us to adjust to a new way of remotely delivering instruction,” Seattle schools’ superintendent, Denise Juneau, said on social media on the day of the state deadline. “It’s OK to take it slow, learn new systems, and provide each other some grace and kindness.”

Related: Planning ahead to catch up students when school reopens after coronavirus

For special ed students, accessing instruction in a physical classroom is hard enough. Instructional aides often work with them directly or pull them into small groups to spend extra time on a lesson. Some children with disabilities require special technology to accommodate physical impairments. How to do that at a distance is a problem that has been left largely unsolved in the early weeks of this crisis. How to reach students without laptops at home, without stable internet connections at home, or without homes, is also still mostly an open question.

In the Federal Way Public Schools, 20 miles south of Seattle, Superintendent Tammy Campbell doesn’t believe her district can ever go 100 percent online. Two-thirds of her students come from low-income families, 22 percent are learning English, and nearly 800, or about 3 percent, currently live without any stable housing – raising questions about where students would connect to Wi-Fi or even charge their devices.

digital equity
At home with her family on March 23, Chloe Sabol, 14, sews masks to donate to a local senior care facility. Her school district, Northshore, was among the first in Washington to close schools amid Seattle’s coronavirus outbreak. Photo courtesy Amy Amirault

“This is bigger than K-12 if you’re going to address equity,” said Campbell, who urged a statewide approach to technology for learning. “In Washington state, every student will need a laptop and access to Wi-Fi. It shouldn’t be dependent on a district. Some won’t be able to pay for that.”

Reykdal agreed. But he doesn’t necessarily see a need for the government to spend billions on connectivity at home – unless the current crisis and school closures last a year or longer.

“We should be thinking about internet connectivity as a utility right now,” he said. “We would be horrified if 30 percent of our families didn’t have electricity or water in their homes.”

Reykdal said he hoped other states could learn from Washington, and he emphasized the past few weeks here have made it clear the new status quo is not an ideal model for learning.

“Every inequity we had in the face-to-face model is magnified when you do it at a distance,” he said. “Now we’re seeing how unprepared the nation is to do distance learning at scale for a long period of time.”

“There could be a Covid-22, a Covid-25, a Covid-30. Someday, we’ll face this again.”

Chris Reykdal, Washington state superintendent of public instruction

In Northshore, Reid announced the relaunch of online instruction four days in advance of the March 30 deadline. School teams met virtually on March 26 and 27 to create their digital classroom plans, and teachers spent the following  week  connecting with students to explain what they should expect.

On the first day of “Northshore Learns v 2.0,” March 30, classes resumed for Amirault’s other three children attending the district’s schools. But not for Daniel. “So far, there is nothing set up,” she said that afternoon.

Three days later, it was finally Daniel’s turn, and he joined his first class on Zoom – a brand-new skill for him and many of his virtual classmates. “It was a mess,” Amirault said. “The call ended after a lot of screaming and tears.”

On April 6, the governor and Reykdal announced that Washignton schools would be closed through the end of the academic year. Even before that Reykdal has already started thinking about what this current crisis will mean for the future. Scrambling to find patchwork solutions is not a situation he wants Washington to repeat.

“Candidly, we’re going to get over Covid-19,” Reykdal said. “But if nothing else, let us learn that there could be a Covid-22, a Covid-25, a Covid-30. Someday, we’ll face this again.”

And if digital equity hasn’t improved by then, Washington may relive the chaos of the past month.

This story about digital equity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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