Arlington, VA

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 4:10 p.m.) A new strategic plan. A newly-developed definition of “equity.” Years of exponential enrollment growth. Turnover of several high-level administrators and, in a few months, two board members. The hiring of the first Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer. The naming of the first new superintendent in over a decade. A shutdown due to a pandemic.

It has all come to a head and has created the perfect opportunity to pause and reset.

This pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to APS and the County to identify and fix the problems with student and parent access to online information and materials.

According to APS data collected, 95% of devices accessed the system in the past few weeks. That is impressive and encouraging. It does not mean all of the remaining 5% cannot access. Some students have chosen not to engage, some may be using another device available in their home, and some may not be able to continue with school due to circumstances caused by the pandemic.

APS and the County cannot fix every issue with online learning, but they can fix the basic problems of availability of devices and internet access and need to do so before the start of the next academic year. Schools have the devices. The County needs to find a way to resolve any lack of internet access.

This distance learning experience is a wake-up call to APS to finally develop and implement a district-wide ed tech curriculum that serves as an effective supplement to classroom instruction and that can facilitate a seamless transition to an effective online program when necessary.

The 1:1 technology initiative has been in place 6 years and we continue to endure vast inconsistencies and insufficient teacher training in how to optimize the use of devices for the benefit of instruction and learning. We cannot wait any longer.

This is a wake-up call to build a broad, integrated network of resources with APS and County working as a unit to identify, facilitate, and deliver needed services.

The beginnings of such a network can already be seen through the efforts to identify locations for new school facilities and collaborating on data used for enrollment projections. Other signs of an emerging network include APS referring parents to County programs as alternatives to eliminated summer enrichment programs, and collaboration between APS and the County for food distribution programs and increasing internet access through mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

These are efforts to build upon, and this is the perfect time to assess the various needs of students and families, to identify whether APS or Arlington County is responsible for addressing those needs and determine how one can support the other to facilitate filling those needs. For example, education is the primary responsibility of school while social services are a major function of government. Schools could identify students and families in need of mental health and social services and offer space for County providers to deliver the actual services.

Another example is preschool and extended day programs. There is a need and desire for more preschool opportunities and APS’ extended day programs have waitlists. The County also runs preschool programs and may be able to expand its offerings more easily than APS. The County can also work to encourage and support the establishment of more private preschools, daycares, and extended day programs to extend APS’ offerings.

Finally, this is a wake-up call and a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate APS’ definition of equity and how it impacts APS policy decisions.

The justification cited for not continuing with new content the remainder of this year was “equity.” These past several weeks have provided both cause and the perfect opportunity to evaluate the meaning of “equity” and its implications for APS’ policies. Should new instruction stop for all students because some or a specified number of students can not or do not access the instruction offered? What is equitable for all students? Are expectations or standards lowered or opportunities reduced for any students because of how APS has defined “equity” or how it has incorporated it into its decisions?

If online learning is necessary next academic year, teachers and students will need to continue working through the curriculum even if access and other issues have not been resolved. So, what will “equitable” instruction look like the next time distance learning is necessary?

How can alternatives and additional supports be provided for those with different needs during a distance learning scenario and how can APS address new needs that may ensue upon the student’s return to the classroom?

While some readers may be happy and quick to point out how my “privilege” shows, I believe that recent experiences give just cause for deeper, more open discussion about “equity” – what it is and what it is not.

Equity is not every student achieving the same. It is every student having the opportunity to achieve the same. It is not about withholding opportunities because some are not currently able to take advantage of them. It is about providing the tools, support, and skills every student needs in order to achieve their personal potential and goals.

Equity is also not equality. Equity does not require that every student accomplish the same goals at the same pace or at the same time. Every child is represented in that popular illustration of children standing on boxes of varying heights according to the “boost” each needs in order to see over the fence. Some may ultimately end up with a higher view. What matters is that each child has the opportunity to attain the highest view they are capable of attaining.

APS and the County should heed this pandemic’s call to address these longstanding needs now, before neglect or insufficient planning and preparation create even more challenging problems to overcome down the road.

The wake-up call has come. The question is: has it been received?

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues.  She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and currently serves as president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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