It seems that our students cannot get a break. Less than a decade ago public education in Idaho was cut by the sixth largest percentage in the country. Now Idaho’s schools are facing new budget cuts thanks to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These cuts will likely stall – and perhaps even reverse – much of the progress we have made in education the last several years. Years in which we raised teacher salaries, increased money for literacy, emphasized career and academic advising, funded dual credits to jumpstart advanced education, and provided more scholarships to postsecondary.

Making a bad situation worse, a study by the non-profit NWEA and researchers at Brown and the University of Virginia concluded that the closure of schools this spring could make students “substantially behind academically” when they return this fall. This setback will impact low-income and minority students who already lag their peers even more.

So, the question is: What can our state do to turn this lemon we have been handed into lemonade the best we can?

First, we have to recognize that education cannot weather an economic storm as well as other programs. Some things can wait until better days, but students only have one chance to obtain the learning they need to be successful. This is especially true for those most formative years from kindergarten to fourth grade when students learn to read so they can read to learn.

Second, we must see education as the cornerstone of a strong economic rebound. Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, says we must be “ensuring that education and skill training continues so that when we get past the pandemic we can really grow and expand and include everyone in the economy with the skills necessary to take the jobs that are created.”

Reinforcing Daly’s emphasis on education is the stark reality that in May the jobless rate for workers with only a high school education was 15.3 percent compared to 7.4 percent for those with a college degree. Right now, fewer than half of high school graduates are working compared to two-thirds of college graduates.

Continuing to put an emphasis on education and ensuring that students come through the pandemic whole must be a collaborative effort. Idaho policymakers must tap every available funding source to invest in education. This will require vision, innovative-thinking and political will. Our congressional delegation must support additional federal relief funding that can help support public education through this crisis. Local patrons and the private sector must continue to support students the best they can.

When school starts this fall it probably will not look like it did last September. At best students will likely be in a blended learning environment where they spend a couple days in the classroom and the rest learning at home. At worst, they will be learning full time from home.

A survey by the State Board of Education last week showed that more than 100,000 students do not have a computer at home and up to 18,000 do not have internet service. To provide equity we must ensure that every student has the tools needed to learn remotely.

We also must ensure that teachers have the tools they need – computers and internet at home, an effective remote learning platform and the professional development to use it.

With double-digit unemployment and the strain that puts on families, we must also ensure that we address the social-emotional needs of students and educators alike. Neither teachers nor students can be at their best when they are traumatized by the fallout from this pandemic.

Most importantly, budget cuts and technological inequities threaten to make the achievement gap even wider. We cannot let them.

Education is an investment in Idaho’s future, one that will pay dividends for generations to come. That investment is more important now than ever as we prepare for the better days that will surely come when we defeat this invisible enemy.

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