By Joel Aune
With the 2021 legislative session fast approaching, school district leaders are asking legislators to maintain their investments in K-12 education and focus on the most urgent needs, as schools continue to grapple with COVID-19.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the pandemic, it is that public schools play a vital role in every community statewide. They are a lifeline for many families and provide a service that is integral to our state’s economy.
Right now, public schools are doing their best to deliver services to all students, but COVID-19 has exposed – and in some cases intensified – the inequities entrenched in communities across the entire state. Our most vulnerable students are really hurting. They need more direct support and assistance as schools attempt to meet the needs of all students under their care. That is why legislators must continue to invest in public education when they return to Olympia this January, and at minimum, not further exacerbate the suffering and negative impact on our students by making cuts this session.
School administrators continue to consider the guidance of county health departments as related to the return of students to the schoolhouse. Washington Association of School Adminstrators members recognize the importance and urgency of getting students back in the schools, while taking steps to ensure the safety of students and staff. As they continue to navigate their way toward a return to in-person learning, our superintendents and district leaders will continue to serve students and families as best they can in a responsible and safe fashion. Looking to the future, this will require a stable funding model, free from cuts and new mandates.
Looking ahead to the second half of the school year, it is not unreasonable to expect that schools will have to continue with remote learning in some form. This is why addressing technology and connectivity issues for students in rural and urban areas must be addressed immediately. The COVID-19 outbreak and resultant school closures exposed a significant technology gap, including the availability of devices and broadband connectivity. The Legislature must ensure there is equitable access to technology resources for all students, regardless of ZIP code, socioeconomic status or ethnicity.
Many students are also experiencing mental and physical health challenges, and school superintendents are deeply concerned about their well-being. School districts need more resources to provide much-needed support to these children and their families, many of whom are living in crisis. Before students are ready to learn, their basic physical and mental health needs must be met.
As the state addresses the coronavirus outbreak and its economic impacts, the Legislature should avoid imposing additional mandates – funded or not – on school districts. School district leaders are already fully consumed with managing their schools amid this pandemic.
When you factor in the implementation of an entirely new funding structure for K-12, including an overhaul of staff compensation and local funding with levies and Local Effort Assistance, more mandates would only place more burden and load on a system currently under intense pressure and stress.
Those leading our public schools are committed to providing equitable access and individualized support for every student. It is critical that legislators continue their provision for K-12 education and deliver the resources schools need to ensure the emotional, physical and learning needs of all children are met now and into the future.
Joel Aune is the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, representing 1,600 school superintendents, district office administrators and principals.