It has been a difficult two years for families, full of pivots caused by a pandemic that highlighted the cracks in our existing, tenuous support systems. Now we’re seeing how a lot of Seattle families decided to navigate these unprecedented times – by leaving our public school system. I understand this choice. I contemplated it myself.
In so many ways, my family was secure throughout the pandemic. My husband and I both kept our jobs, our kids were good students without special needs. We had housing and internet connection. We were able to follow the instructions to implement remote schooling.
And yet, it was hard — very, very, very hard. Our lives had an underlying tone of suspended animation. One thousand small frustrations took so much joy from our everyday life. Comforting sad and exhausted children who couldn’t handle one more asynchronous lesson. Countless schedule consults. Working early in the morning and very late at night to advance projects that were paused during school hours. The isolation and burnout and, eventually, the loss of hope that school would ever return to in-person.
Because for many months, it didn’t feel like we were going back. The school board showed no sense of urgency. The teachers union opposed returning to classrooms, even after vaccines were available. The district seemed only to focus on improving virtual school. No local government official was pushing to return kids to classrooms. Meanwhile, private schools were in-person or soon returning to it. The Seattle Seahawks played to packed stadiums and bars and gyms were open. I could take my kids to an arcade, but not to a classroom. It quickly felt like a case of the haves versus the have-nots, and I was angry.
District data shows I was not alone in that anger. Families with financial means were enrolling in private schools. Those unable to spend $25,000+ per child per year on private school were moving to places with re-opened schools and more affordable living. Families with the privilege of time were independently homeschooling. I contemplated each of these options at great length.
Ultimately, my family decided to stay with public schools. After many family discussions, we realized we simply didn’t want to give up on our beloved public elementary school and school community. We cherished our teachers, who had gone above and beyond in making virtual school as positive as possible. Leaving those relationships would be another loss in a time that was full of losses for children.
And, above all else, we believed in the importance and power of public education.
Fighting educational inequity
My own parents moved to the U.S. just a few years before I was born. They learned English alongside my older siblings through their local elementary school, and today my siblings and I all have advanced degrees. This is what public education can do – transform lives.
But if families with the ability to volunteer, resources to donate and language skills to advocate all left our school system, what would happen? After months of critical conversations about equity, our local public school system was taking part in the largest educational inequity of our time – requiring public school students to remain in the subpar virtual learning environment, while students who could afford private school were going back to in-person learning. If we truly believed that all kids deserve the same opportunities, could we just leave a system that was specifically designed to help level the playing field and provide a great education for all kids, regardless of their background?
So, instead of leaving, we spoke up.
It was a hard thing to do at the time as parents in public forums were quick to judge others who vocalized the need to return to in-person learning. Still, parents across the city used their voices to advocate for a return to classrooms. It was a joyous day to see our kids in the classrooms after so many months at home. Hearing my kids excitedly share their school stories made the advocacy emails and phone calls and Seattle Public Schools board meetings worth it.
Today, more than 24 months after the first COVID-19 lockdown, it is clear that kids did not fare well in the virtual environment. It will take time to make up for learning loss and negative impacts to youth mental health. Public school enrollment losses will mean budget cuts and reduction in service. No one knows how that translates to next school year. We need to continue advocating at both state and local levels to ensure that all kids get the education they deserve. That is now more important than ever.
In the months ahead, my family and the broader education arena in our region will continue to see how this plays out. But today, as we walk to school and join the school community that cares about us, we are very glad we stayed.
Linda Rabadi Fair is a nonprofit professional and lives with her family in Seattle.