Opinion Pieces

The Columbian: Herrera Beutler: Return to classrooms

After a year of mostly empty classrooms, parents and students have reached a breaking point.

A mom from Battle Ground recently wrote to me, “I am struggling to get my kindergartner to do his assignments, and doing them on the computer is difficult and time-consuming. It is killing their love for learning before it is even given a chance to start.”

A teacher from a nearby school district said of her students: “They are falling farther and farther behind academically, but honestly what concerns me the most, is the mental health of my students and their siblings. Many parents are reporting anxiety and depression. I have had parents call asking if I can stop by because their kid is crying and wants to do nothing. I have some who have said their child has stopped speaking.”

Countless other residents have shared with me how disheartened and desperate they are after scrambling to maintain the semblance of an education in the last 12 months. For adults, you’re either overloaded trying to meet your kids’ needs while doing a full-time job; or you’re struggling to find employment and make ends meet while filling in as tutor, teacher, or tech help. It’s unsustainable.

But nobody needs a return to the classroom more than students.

The rate of academic failure is rising, and disadvantaged students are suffering the most. Low-income students are estimated to lose over a year of learning due to the current school closures. These students don’t have access to private school, tutors or other supplementary resources.

It’s not just academics that are suffering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that mental health-related emergency department visits have increased sharply for children of all age ranges. Nevada’s Clark County School System has set up a suicide alert system because its youth suicide rate has nearly doubled during the pandemic.

And many vulnerable students are less safe at home. Here in Washington, kids who are living in unsafe homes aren’t able to talk with teachers or counselors, who are frequently the ones who report these abuses. Consequently, calls reporting abuse in Washington are down 87 percent — not because violent and neglectful adults have suddenly reformed, but because nobody’s reporting the abuse.

While some schools in Southwest Washington have hybrid options a few days a week, we need our schools to fully reopen. The CDC just released guidance reinforcing what study after study has shown: with proper measures like consistent distancing and mask-wearing, schools can be safely reopened. In fact, the CDC states that schools should be the first to open and last to close.

Southwest Washington is an incredible community. Teachers have endured unbelievable stress through all the unknowns of the last year and continue doing their best to educate students. And parents have been relentless in advocating for their children.

But they also tell me they’re disheartened by continual delays and changing metrics for what a full reopening looks like. And many trusted President Joe Biden when he promised that he would reopen America’s schools in his first 100 days, but have since heard his administration backtrack on that pledge. Days ago, his spokesperson claimed that 51 percent of schools opening one day a week would satisfy his promise. Since then, they’ve offered muddled and conflicting messages.

As this region’s federal representative, I’m doing everything I can to get our kids back in the classroom.

I helped insert more than $70 billion in Congress’ COVID-19 relief bills for aid to schools. Thanks to these efforts, schools can implement COVID-19 testing, purchase additional cleaning supplies and upgrade their school’s facilities to help protect those in the building

Staff and student safety is fundamental. In the last COVID-19 relief package, Congress provided over $100 billion for vaccine purchasing, distribution, and increased COVID-19 testing. Gov. Jay Inslee should prioritize teachers and school staff for vaccines — something I formally urged him to do two months ago. And if someone has a health condition or lives in a household with a person that makes them particularly vulnerable, remote learning and teaching should remain an option until we’re through the COVID-19 pandemic.

After nearly a year out of the classrooms for many students, there’s too much at stake to keep them on the sidelines. Our students and parents in Southwest Washington cannot wait any longer.