Gov. Jay Inslee and his advisers – though not the Legislature – are figuring out when and how to reopen the state. It’s a work in progress. Life in Washington will change in many ways, some of them permanent. And one of those changes should be the length of the school year.
When the novel coronavirus hit Washington, schools in the Puget Sound counties of King, Snohomish and Pierce closed first. Within days, the emergency spread, and schools statewide closed, along with much of the economy. The governor soon extended the shutdown past its initial end date. Now the shutdown will last through at least the end of the 2019-20 school year.
While we commend Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger’s optimism that local schools might still reopen before the end of the school year, the odds seem low. Theoretically, Redinger and superintendents in rural parts of the state less affected by the virus could put students back in classrooms before Seattle. But with summer break only six weeks out anyway, we doubt the governor will find that option compelling enough to rescind his previous order.
That mustn’t be end of the discussion, though. It’s not too soon to ask when schools will reopen and what the new normal will be next year and beyond.
Inslee and Washington educators should look to California for inspiration. There, the governor has suggested that schools could reopen midsummer, maybe in July. That would kick off an extended school year to make up for lost time this year. Schools are providing distance learning, but it’s not the same as being in the classroom. Recent research on the impacts of school closures found that by the fall, students likely will have lost 30% of the typical reading and writing progress from the previous year and 50% of math gains. The lost final few months of in-classroom education will leave students seriously behind.
Washington owes its students better than that. They should receive the full education their predecessors and successors will receive, not be left to dangle as the less-well-educated generation thanks to a pandemic.
A summer start would provide an opportunity for remedial work to catch students up to where they should be. High school seniors who have moved on to college wouldn’t benefit from it, but the rest of the students moving up through K-12 education would.
And if it works, Washington should make a longer school year the new normal. Educators long have known that students backslide in the summer. The days of America’s agrarian past that helped justify the current academic calendar are long gone. Let’s use this opportunity to reimagine the academic year as a full year with shorter breaks spread throughout. That would be good for students and good for working families that often struggle with months of day care through the summer. It’s also a more efficient use of public school resources that no longer would sit idle for months.
Despite the benefits, year-round school has made only a few inroads in the United States. Meanwhile, some of America’s greatest economic and research competitors abroad have made the switch to some form of year-round education. They include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. America’s young people will find it increasingly hard in coming decades to compete against the young in those nations if nothing changes.
The biggest hurdle to change might be educational insiders, the very people who should prioritize student education the most. A recent survey found that two-thirds of teachers favored leaving the 2020-21 school year alone and just picking up with remedial education crammed into the calendar in the fall. In other words, they don’t want to work more and would rather leave students permanently behind. Only 15% favored extending the school year.
No doubt a longer school year would be a burden on teachers. In Washington, where the teachers union is strong under a Democratic-controlled state government, there would need to be hard negotiating. More work should justify more pay. Let’s start those discussions now.
A crisis can also be an opportunity to transform the way Washington does things. Let’s implement an educational system that better serves the state’s students.
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