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Superintendent Worries About Distance Learning

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Susan Enfield is the superintendent of Highline Public Schools, a district serving 18,000 students in Burien, Wash., not far from where the nation's first coronavirus case was confirmed. I reached out to Susan to see how she's dealing with the coronavirus challenge. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: You've noted that all the PR pitches you've received are a distraction from an already very busy load. What's taking up most of your time right now?

Susan: The technical work of transitioning our system to distance learning for an unknown period of time is definitely time-consuming, as is ensuring we are communicating with staff and families as quickly and accurately as we can. I am also spending a tremendous amount of time supporting—and worrying about—our team, from both a professional and emotional standpoint. Professionally, I am working to help my colleagues understand that we cannot rely on what we know and have always done—this is a time for radical problem solving. I am also checking in with them to be sure they are pacing themselves and caring for their families and one another. The phrase "this is a marathon not a sprint" has never been more true.

Rick: Can you walk us through some of the challenges you're dealing with that people might not be aware of?

Susan: In Highline, we have made the promise to know every student by name, strength, and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose. It is a promise we all take deeply seriously and strive to deliver on daily. Not being able to see our students each day makes it harder to maintain the relationships we have built, much less engage them in meaningful learning. This is even more of a concern—and a reality—for our most vulnerable students. I think we all fear that the achievement and opportunity gaps that exist will be exacerbated by school closure.

Rick: What percentage of your students have internet access and how are you trying to help those that don't get online?

Susan: We estimate that before this started, roughly 65 percent of our students had at-home internet access, but now with companies offering free internet for those who need it, that number is likely closer to 90 percent or higher. We are surveying to find out the actual number. Our partnership with Sprint1Million has provided 1,000 hotspots, but that is not enough. When I am asked what we need donations for, I say hotspots. Our goal has to be 100 percent of Highline homes connected to the internet.

Rick: OK, so what are you hearing from the field about how educators are dealing with all these adjustments?

Susan: I think it varies wildly depending on where you are. The inequities within and across our school systems have never been more glaringly apparent. But regardless of location, what I see my colleagues locally and nationally doing is inspiring. Yes, we are all overwhelmed and working as hard and fast as we can to find ways to support our students and their families, but as social media is demonstrating daily, we're doing so in nimble and creative ways that we have not tried the past. From schools partnering with local coffee shops to provide food for students and families to districts using their local television channels to broadcast lessons and then sharing those with other districts, there are many reasons to take heart and be hopeful.

Rick: How much confidence do you have that distance learning is a meaningful substitute for all the benefits kids get from being in school?

Susan: I have zero confidence that distance learning is, or will be, a meaningful substitute for school for many of our children. I believe there is no substitute for the relationship between teachers and their students and students with one another. In addition, there will be serious limitations to the level of quality and consistency in the learning opportunities our students have. These limitations include our ability to provide access for all students, particularly those with disabilities and those for whom English is not their first language. There will also be limitations to how much families will be able to support learning from home, which I heard loud and clear last week when I met virtually with our Family Action Committee. To be clear, I am not saying we should not do all we can to provide distance learning; we absolutely should and are. We must, however, be honest in what it will achieve and be prepared to remediate, in academics, behavior, and socialization once schools reopen.

Rick: All right, and what's involved with reopening schools? How likely is it that some districts reopen this spring?

Susan: We have never had to do this before, and to be honest, those of us responsible for leading school systems have been focused on how we respond to what our challenge is now—and that is caring for and educating our students in an entirely different way. In the first few weeks of closure, I was so focused on the day-to-day decisions I had to make that I could not think long term, but I am definitely doing so now given that schools will not be reopening this spring.

We are currently scenario planning for the fall. There are several options in play: 1) continuing with full-time distance learning, 2) providing a hybrid model where students attend school certain days of the week and learn from home on others to promote social distancing, and 3) returning altogether but different from before. While we likely won't know what the fall will look like before we end the school year in June, my goal is that our students, staff, and families know that we have a plan for whatever that may be. Honestly, the logistics of reopening concern me far less than responding to the impact closure will have had on our children, from learning loss to loss of routine to trauma. The need for remediation in academics, social-emotional learning, and socialization will be profound, and I don't believe any of us really knows how we will meet those needs at this scale.

Rick: What should Washington or the states be doing to help right now? What can they provide that's most helpful, or what rules or requirements would it be useful to relax?

Susan: We have received flexibility in many ways already from elimination of state tests for this school year to how we can provide meals for our students. Where we absolutely need help is with connectivity and access. This is paramount right now, and we need action from the Federal Communications Commission, which can, and must, institute changes to the E-Rate program to make it possible for all of our students who need access to get it. Now is the time for all of us to advocate for this by pushing the FCC to provide solutions beyond what we have in regulation. In addition, we need flexibility with the timelines for supporting our students with special needs. What was written into students' IEPs prior to closure in many cases may not be feasible in our current reality. To be clear, I am not saying that we waive any of the requirements of IDEA, but we need to be realistic and flexible in what we can do in the context of remote learning and social distancing.

Rick: OK, last question. What are you seeing that's most promising or heartening?

Susan: I am not sure we are celebrating those public school employees who are deemed essential and, in the midst of stay-at-home and self-isolation orders, are showing up each day to provide our students with meals, technology, and child care. I have the honor of seeing them, from a safe distance, almost every day and am inspired. They demonstrate service above self, which our nation needs far more of today, and I hope this is one of the greatest lessons our children learn from this chapter in history.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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