With the closure of school buildings in March, it has been made very clear the essential role schools play for families and our community. Public schools do so much more than just educate our students. In Port Townsend, we pride ourselves on providing healthy, nutritious and scratch-cooked meals for our students. More than half the students in our district receive free or reduced-cost meals and rely on the schools for that important nutrition.
We partner with many community agencies to provides a wide range of services such as school based health clinics, mental health and drug and alcohol counseling, mentoring, after-school childcare, clothing for families in need, weekend nutrition bags and so much more. In addition, our staff provide support for homeless families and English language learners, student counseling and referrals for outside support.
The day schools closed, Port Townsend School District was ready to continue providing these essential services, including free breakfast and lunch, and child care for essential workers, in partnership initially with the Jefferson County YMCA. Community partners have found ways to continue to provide school-based health services, counseling and weekend nutrition bags.
Public and private schools provide education for our youth, but they also provide care and supervision of children so parents can work. To a large degree, the economic engine of the U.S. depends on the schools. Yet, the schools are closed. I should say, the school buildings are closed. Schools are actually operating — only, for the most part, in a digital space. Further, most students are home with parents, many of whom are not working. We know families are challenged by the many stressors of the stay-at-home orders and the lack of in-person connection through the schools.
In Port Townsend Schools and across Washington state, continuous learning is happening and all students are expected to participate. Port Townsend teachers are providing weekly lessons and activities consisting of digital and non-digital materials, which students work on independently and submit to their teacher. Chromebooks are provided for every student who needs one. Paper learning packets are available for students who cannot access online continuous learning.
The mindset for schools this spring is to stay connected and keep as many students moving forward in their learning as possible. Due to the extreme stress on families and lack of in-person connection with teachers, we know it is very challenging for some students to engage in distance-learning. If you are reading this and know a young person, please reach out and encourage them to engage in their education and connect with their teachers.
Throughout this crisis, I have been reminded of how special the Port Townsend community is, as they have reached out and offered help to the schools and our families. Many community organizations and the Jefferson County PUD have provided WiFi access through boosting several access points.
Also, in partnership with StrongerTowns, the Port Townsend Education Foundation is providing funding for low-income families to set up home internet connectivity due to the generosity of the Jefferson Community Foundation. Our vision is to have 100% connectivity with high-speed internet for all families.
The unexpected conversion to remote learning has created an opportunity, in my opinion, all schools need to adopt. This opportunity has enabled us to rethink the role of technology to better personalize learning. We are not sure what the physical distancing rules will be in the fall. The fall may look similar to this spring, or schools might need to implement a blend of in-person and remote learning necessitated by the science of the disease.
To be ready, connectivity is key, as well as a modified learning model. This learning model should allow digital content enhancement that supports instructional practices designed to leverage student agency through choice, pacing and projects. Moving forward, digital resources need to be further developed and accessible to students, both at school and remotely, this year and beyond.
This change in public education is what we call “adaptive.” The significant change of practice is a way to adapt to the new reality. In the long-term, we will be better equipped to serve the modern students of today.
(John Polm is the superintendent for the Port Townsend School District.)