Distance Learning Will Increase Inequity in Schools. Here’s How to Fix It


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Plans for “distance learning” in the face of Covid-19 will increase the achievement gap between white kids and Black children and other kids of color unless Seattle Public Schools and other districts really – and finally – make learning to read the purpose of the K-5 years.

Despite the frightening and discouraging job losses – and likely soon-to-come wave of evictions among lower-income workers – nothing matches the chaos and conflict Covid-19 has brought to pre-K-12 public education. We appear at a loss to resolve the competing values and interlocking problems that hit with the realization that we can’t go back to normal with kids and teachers in their classrooms, hundreds crowded into school buildings with the virus hiding in every sneeze and carried home to vulnerable adults.

Depending on where you live, plans range from back to normal (few places trying that) through reasonably developed programs for partial openings – smaller classes, only a couple days a week at school, the rest of the time “distance learning” – to 100 percent remote, with kids who have computers or tablets on Zoom or Teams or watching videos. Kids without those advantages trying to make it work on smart phone screens. Right now, most school districts in the metro area are starting the year with option 3, distance learning. It’s not nothing but it’s not the interactive experience we associate with school.

Then there are the practical problems: Parents need to be home, particularly for elementary-age kids, to make sure something happens at the receiving end. Can working parents, especially single parents even manage this?  Will they have to forgo work hours? Lose their jobs?

Of course, there are workarounds. People are naturally ingenious, not surprisingly when it comes to seeing that their children have every advantage and resource for success. We’re going to see “learning pods,” groups of families drawing in parents – even hiring teachers – and setting up classrooms for three, four, five, kids in someone’s garage or basement media room. (Move over, man cave!) For some, you can include escape to private schools, which will offer hybrid models that look better than Seattle’s and other public districts’ plans.

The potential for inequity, for continuing the systemic racism already – and for decades – built into public schools (all schooling, really), is staggering.

As I have written in these pages earlier, for more than five decades, the so-called “achievement gap” between Blacks and other minorities and white kids has never been erased.

Here’s the 2017-18 data for Seattle: students proficient in reading at grade level at 3rd grade, whites 80 percent; blacks 35.5 percent. It never varies much. That’s what systemic racism looks like. The fears that the pandemic’s disruption of schooling will only worsen the problem are fully justified. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Seattle Public Schools can and should use this year of Covid-19 disruption to first and foremost teach reading to Blacks, other minorities and the poor (homeless kids count, too, and there will be more of them in the coming months) primarily in the elementary grades. (There are reading-disadvantaged youngsters in middle and high school, as well.) These are the kids who will be significantly hurt and fall further behind given the distance learning scheme that’s planned.

Two things need to change. First, unfortunately (and I don’t have much hope for changing this), the distance learning plan is based on delivering remotely the entire K-12 curriculum as defined by school boards and state law and regulations with very little live interaction between teachers and students. You can see why I don’t have much hope for changing this. But I’d still suggest “less is more,” and school systems should dramatically thin out the curriculum to offer online, on video and Zoom only what can be deemed most essential.

So, second, in the elementary years, what’s clearly most essential for children and a clear determinant of how they will do in later years of schooling and work, is learning to read, that very skill where Blacks have been systemically shortchanged for years. Districts know exactly which kids can’t read at grade level (most Black children) so in Covid-19 distance learning, or partial day plans, teaching each and every one of them to read (using phonics, the system that connects letters and groups of letters to the sounds of speech) should be the first and foremost – really, the only necessary – goal of the plan.

There is already a system for this. Children with learning disabilities are by law, provided with IEPs – Individual Learning Plans.  That approach should be used to work with every child not at grade level in reading, providing individual instruction until the job is done, the child is a reader. Whatever it takes. Home visits (on the porch, at distance if need be), individual video contact after ensuring each reading IEP child has the technology and an adult to help, learning pods created, managed (with proper pandemic safety) and staffed by the school district itself focused solely on reading instruction for K-5 kids.    And more. It won’t be easy, but it will be equitable, fair and more just than what we’ve done so far. Nothing is more important. Since Covid-19 has made a mess of schooling, the response should be to get the most crucial things done. Teach reading, really teach reading to all the kids.

Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for Crosscut.com and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.


  1. Using this crisis to create a reading surge among K-5 kids who need it will not only benefit those kids, it will benefit ALL kids by making it easier for teachers all the way up the grade ladder to teach to classes where nearly all kids are reading at or close to grade level.

  2. Absolutely, Tom. And kids reading at grade level don’t feel stupid and get left behind, which is exactly what fuels the school to prison pipeline.

  3. Yes, they will. And I like the idea of a tutor corps of perhaps mainly retired teachers along with other professionals that would offer learning pod opportunities to Black and other families without the resources to pay for learning pod teachers.


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