If the snowfall seen Friday Feb. 12 had occurred in any other academic year, it's likely most metro area schools would be closed for a snow day. After 11 months of remote learning brought on suddenly by the COVID-19 pandemic, for many students in the Portland area it was just another school day.
The ability to teach and learn remotely is one of a handful of bright spots and takeaways from the past year, touched on by Oregon education and early childhood learning leaders during a Portland City Club conversation Friday, Feb. 12. The conversation, dubbed State of Education, featured host Toya Fick, Oregon's executive director of Stand For Children. Fick was joined by Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, Gresham Barlow School District Superintendent Katrise Perera and Miriam Calderon, early learning system director for the state of Oregon.
It's unclear what future snow days will look like, if they ever re-enter the lexicon, but if the pandemic and distance learning have made anything clear, it's the need to rethink the public resources needed to successfully educate children from preschool to graduation, guest panelists said.
"As you know, this pandemic's really magnified a lot of the racial inequities that have long existed in our systems — public education, public health, human services — are those that really sort of come to the forefront during this time," Guerrero said.
A glaring example? Students from households with better access to stable or high-speed internet were able to fully participate in online learning, while those without more expensive home internet services could not.
"I'd say the heaviest lift was putting together an action plan, a one-to-one digital learning platform in less than two weeks," Perera said. "Frankly, school districts should not have been in the business of trying to organize digital connectivity for students. But as a partner we stepped up. But the biggest question we have to ask ourselves with that, knowing that the access was limited … what is the price of digital exclusion in the long term? You know, if we do nothing about this … we continue to allow and afford and enable the learning gaps to continue, right?"
Guerrero pointed out that school districts have not had to account for a pandemic in over 100 years.
"I never could have imagined a year fraught with so many unprecedented challenges," Guerrero said, noting the pandemic, but also the racial justice uprisings that catapulted Portland to a national stage and impacted the district's students significantly.
Still, Perera noted, districts stepped up rapidly.
"Today, even in the snow, we're still delivering instruction," she said.
But districts like Perera's in Gresham and Guerrero's in Portland did more than just pivot to distance learning abruptly, they scrambled to make sure kids and their families could still get meals and pick up computers if they didn't have one at home. It was the ground level in the pyramid of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs- a highly cited psychological theory from Abraham Maslow which frames human needs and motivation in a five-layer hierarchy, with safety and psychological needs at the bottom.
Perera, who has a doctorate degree, is used to applying theories and models to her work.
"Maslow's over Bloom's Taxonomy," Perera said, referring to another hierarchical model about learning that is often referenced in teaching and education settings.
The things that can't be unseen
As schools worked to tend to the educational needs of students, Calderon's team had to immediately shift gears to address the state's disparate childcare landscape.
She said in spring 2020, when the governor's office and state health authority were crafting coronavirus rules and health mandates, many daycare providers wanted to stay open. They couldn't handle the financial blow of being shut down. Others, especially home-based childcare providers, were worried about the health risks of staying open.
"We haven't had a pandemic-proof early learning and childcare system," Calderon said.
She shared a harrowing account of a daycare provider who admitted early on in the pandemic that she was going to work with a 101-degree temperature, "because she had to."
"Something that I can't unsee from the beginning of this emergency is, you know, a tweet from a childcare teacher in our city who said 'I have a 101-degree fever, and I'm going to work today because I have to,' at the very early stages of this pandemic 'because I have no paid sick leave, because I can't afford not to.'"
Calderon said because childcare is almost entirely parent-funded, it often leads to women being excluded from the workforce. It also means daycare providers in lower-income areas have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
"The market-based system doesn't work in those communities, and those programs have struggled," Calderon said. "There's so few public dollars going into this system, which is really the opposite of how we finance public education beginning in kindergarten, right?
Calderon noted childcare as a profession is largely comprised of underpaid women of color, who often struggle to provide for themselves.
"I think the bright spot for me, in conclusion, is that I think childcare and early learning has been deemed essential," Calderon said. "I think before the pandemic we didn't really do enough to respect this workforce value and invest and so the bright spot is now that we know and recognize it as essential, I hope we never turn back from that and we continue to make the necessary investments."
Fick wrapped up the one-hour livestream discussion with a question and plea from a Gresham middle schooler, who said students need more from educators, in the way of engaging curriculum and social-emotional support.
Superintendents Guerrero and Perera latched on.
"Now, more than ever, we have to think about how we teach and what we teach," Perera said.
Guerrero thanked and encouraged the student for using her voice on behalf of her and her classmates.
"You said, 'I noticed that this is having an impact on the mental health of my classmates,'" Guerrero said. "I think in all of the work that we do aimed at continuous improvement, we have to keep creating those spaces to hear from our youth, and we have to help them find their own sense of agency and develop that voice as well."
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