Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: Virtual school challenges must be addressed by all

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As Spokane’s largest school districts make the difficult decision to start the academic year in a virtual learning environment, the region’s business community faces the challenging task of helping a workforce pulled in different directions with kids at home.

Collectively, let’s look closely at the resources we have to address the conundrums facing all involved—educators, parents, and employers—as we navigate the uncharted waters of trying to slow a pandemic.

Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley School District will start the academic year fully online, citing concerns about the spread of coronavirus if students are packed into classrooms and hallways. The move has garnered the support of Spokane Regional Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, who consistently has expressed concerns about the spread of the virus if schools reopen as usual. Mead and East Valley school districts have decided to start school in the fall with the option of in-person instruction or online learning. Most other, smaller districts in the rural areas surrounding Spokane are still weighing their options.

While school districts are doing what they believe to be necessary to keep teachers, staff, and students safe, the decision brings with it a host of challenges for youth and their families that go beyond questions of the quality of education.

Educators will be quick to remind parents that teachers aren’t babysitters, and schools aren’t day care. However, last spring, when schools shuttered abruptly in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, it became apparent that school districts play an important role in the welfare of children that goes well beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Even though they were closed, schools continued to fulfill the role they’d taken of providing lunches to youth who are food insecure—students who might not receive a good meal otherwise. For some, the social services are as vital as the educational opportunity.

While the welfare of Spokane’s children is the top priority, virtual learning provides a host of challenges for working parents. For some, it’s the challenge of having children at home during work hours and finding ways to provide proper supervision if parents need to work outside of the house. For others, that’s compounded by struggles with technological challenges of linking to virtual classrooms.

Couple that with an environment in which day cares have had to scale back during the pandemic, with some not coming back to provide care for those who once relied on them. The pressures on families arguably are greater than ever.

That also puts additional pressure on employers, who must balance the need to have some workers onsite with the need of those workers to care for their children. Alas, the pressures on employers arguably are greater than ever too.

All of us would like to see high school football teams starting to practice and teachers starting to mobilize in preparation for a new academic year in the school buildings we’ve invested so much in during recent years. Those days will return. In the interim, we face a difficult reality.

We, as a business community, should get out ahead of these challenges, using whatever resources are available to help the portion of the labor force that needs it. After all, workers’ challenges quickly can have an adverse impact on employers in terms of lost productivity and worker retention.

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