Even though the new year for Seattle Public Schools begins Friday for most students, COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty for parents and teachers as students prepare for an all-remote start to the school year.
Prior to last week, very little information was available about what this school year was going to look like as the district and the teachers association had yet to finalize an agreement outlining duties and responsibilities under the new education arrangement. At the school board meeting last week, some parents pleaded for more information from school district administrators and reminded the school board that making education equitable is even more important this year.
Other parents looking for consistency and continuity in their children’s educations formed learning pods. While the pods can take many forms, generally they are comprised of a small number of families who have joined together to share remote learning responsibilities by either taking turns as host or hiring a tutor or teacher to work with the children in the pods. The pods are intended to support families, especially those working from home, but they raise questions about inequity for some families who may not be able to participate.
While families are free to make arrangements outside of school, Leschi Elementary School Principal Stephen Liu said educators will be taking extra steps to make sure all students are receiving an equitable education by creating student groupings that take into consideration a number of factors.
“As educators, we want to make the experience across classrooms as consistent as possible,” he said.
The goal is to ensure groupings and classrooms are equitable, and that students in different classes will have the same experience with both curriculum and access to technology.
Liu envisions teachers would form and lead the groupings of students and also help facilitate ways for families in that group to communicate and help each other. Groupings will factor in students’ resources and privilege — access to time, help, technology, educational needs, “while also making sure we don’t tokenize students of color and place them in these groups for the sake of diversity,” Liu said.
“We want to make sure all students are included in these networks of support, and especially we want to make sure that our students of color are not excluded from these learning pods,” Liu said.
Ideally, teachers will form the groups after they have spent time with students and completed some remote learning. Priority, however, will be placed on the small groups and individual connections between teacher and student the upcoming year.
“Flexibility is going to be the name of the game this year,” Liu said.
Liu said educators are also thinking about whether they can apply anything they are learning now to improve the educational system overall to provide more equity for students and their families.
“Really, I think that this is such a new experience for everyone, that we’re just thinking of lots of different ideas,” he said.
First and foremost, Liu said, educators are going to start with the needs of the students and continue from there when making their decisions. That may mean finding creative solutions to problems.
Liu said, for example, if the daily schedule starts at 8:30 and a student is not connecting at that time, educators will have to determine why and find a way around that barrier. He suggested, if a student doesn’t have access to live instruction, perhaps a lesson can be recorded.
“So, I think the student is really going to dictate most of what we’re doing,” he said.
As Liu highlighted, educators are looking at classroom and group structure with equity in mind. One of the criticisms of learning pods is they are not formed with all students in mind. Some students, inevitably, will not be able to participate.
Nick Terrones, a teacher of Mexican/ Native American descent at Hilltop Children’s Center and Educator Institute in Queen Anne, said when learning pods are being constructed, families with the financial resources, time and network will benefit. Families in a lower economic class are just trying to survive and make ends meet, Terrones said.
“They can’t raise their hands and advocate for themselves if they are in survival mode,” Terrones said. “This is the way things become systemic because a lot of the time, race and class are tied together, and you have these people just trying to survive and they’re not able to jump at the opportunities.”
Mike Browne, community engagement manager at Hilltop, said for education to be equitable, people must look at inequality in a different way.
“I think we have to understand how all of our systems operate and not just focus on the institution of education,” he said. “We need to understand the confluence of racism and the other isms — classism, sexism — and how they don’t operate in silos.”
Browne, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, said for any meaningful change to take place in education, there has to be a cultural shift within organizations, and a paradigm shift within individuals. Conversations must begin with a framework of social justice issues, such as race and class, in mind.
“This work requires a parallel process,” Browne said. “It can’t just happen on the classroom level or with what you do with your kids. To have sustainable change in learning environments — whether it is schools, learning pods, homeschooling, museums, summer camps or whatever, you need organizational alignment.”