Redmond-based Microsoft Corp. yesterday committed to spending an additional $110 million-plus to help Washington state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funding will go toward paying the wages of local vendors affected by the closure of the company’s massive campus and supporting state nonprofits with cash and in-kind support.
The company also pledged technology and other support to help Washington schools reopen safely, including free technology enabling schools to collect and report COVID data to build the transparency necessary to create trust and confidence for communities; and providing free Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies to districts. Microsoft also applauded Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan announced Wednesday that eased metrics for determining when to safely reopen schools, and supported greater priority of COVID vaccines for teachers, especially those who are older or have other health vulnerabilities.
“Obviously the first 400,000 vaccines will go as they already are and should be to people who are frontline health care providers, or have other critical conditions; but teachers support all of us in this state, whether we have kids in school, in our own home, or it’s in our neighborhood, they’re vital and we want to land our voice of support for them,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said during a virtual press conference announcing steps the company is taking.
He was joined by Juan Lavista, general manager and director of the Microsoft AI for Good Research Lab; Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington; and Susan Enfield, superintendent for Highline Public Schools.
Microsoft since March has been paying the hourly wages of vendors that would normally be on its campus but have been home since the pandemic essentially closed the campus, Smith said. The company has spent about $110 million paying those workers so far.
“We don’t want them to go into the holidays in 2020 worrying about what the new year will bring, so today we at Microsoft are making a clear and explicit commitment that we will continue to pay the wages of all of these hourly workers who work onsite” until they return onsite. He said he hoped the return would happen in 2021.
Microsoft projects that that will cost an additional $54 million between the beginning of December and the end of March.
Smith said the company, by the beginning of December, had spent $98 million to support Washington nonprofits — $67 million in cash, the rest in technology and in-kind support.
“Today, we’re announcing that we will extend and continue to provide this kind of support and we project it will be on the same rate as we go forward,” Smith said. He forecasted that Microsoft will provide roughly $60 million of additional support to the state’s nonprofits between Dec. 1 and early July 2021.
Lavista said the company has worked closely with organizations globally, including the World Health Organization, Washington State Department of Health (DOH), and universities like UW to better understand and track the pandemic. Microsoft provides DOH the system for data collection and also is part of the pandemic modeling team.
Microsoft is working with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest with about 700,000 students, to provide information to manage its response to the pandemic.
“Based on studies, we know that schools are not a significant driver of the virus, and when safety precautions are in place, such as mandatory mask and social distancing, we know that we can actually reduce significantly the chances of getting infected,” Lavista said.
To reopen, schools need information at the school and community levels and within schools’ individual cohorts, he said. This includes collecting and tracking information such as positive-test rates, hospitalization rates and capacity, and cases within schools and cohorts.
Similar to what it’s doing for L.A. schools, Microsoft will provide the system for Washington school districts to better track and report COVID-19 related testing data at no cost, he said.
“This will ensure that schools can report to parents and teachers, providing the transparency needed for the community to remain well-informed about critical health information,” Lavista said.
UW’s Lake, referring to the “moonshot” success of the COVID vaccine rollout this week, called for a similar moonshot in education to recover the learning losses that have occurred while schools have been closed. Closures have hurt many students, especially those in lower-income districts, she said.
“For a lot of kids in our state and across the country, things are really a crisis, where they really haven’t had any meaningful instruction or therapeutic services since March — almost a year now,” Lake said. “So this is leaving us with a situation where not only are the students challenged, but parents and teachers are burnt out and frustrated.”
Every week matters, she said. Research is still unfolding, but kids learn less in remote school — particularly when it comes to math, she noted.
But there’s hope, Lake said. She reiterated Lavista’s message that schools aren’t super-spreaders if they take proper safety measures, especially for younger kids. Most school districts around the U.S. have managed to open in some format, even if only for vulnerable kids, she said, adding that remote learning is only occurring among about a quarter to a third of all U.S. districts.
“In the Puget Sound, we’ve missed a little bit of an opportunity in the summer and fall to get things reopened, but we can do it now,” she said, calling on people to consider ways to make a moonshot for Washington students.
“How can we get schools open as quickly as possible and … how can we think about catching every kid up to where they need to be by the end of next year?” Lake said. “We can do that with evidence-based strategies around tutoring and social, emotional supports. … That kind of moonshot really is possible, we know it is, but what we do next matters. Every week matters.”
Highline’s Enfield said most of her district’s 17,000 students haven’t stepped foot in school since March 12.
“That’s real, and it’s starting to take a toll,” she said.
She sees via Zoom how hard district staff and students are working to make remote learning work, but said distance learning isn’t ideal. Many students are hurting academically and emotionally, she added.
Highline hopes to start hybrid school for elementary students in February.
“The health and safety of everyone in our community has to come first, and that’s why I am so enthusiastic by the measures that Microsoft is taking today, because working together, I am confident that we can bring our children back into our schools safely,” Enfield said.
“As Maya Angelou once said, ‘Do your best until you know better; and then when you know better, do better.’ As you’ve heard, we know a lot more than we did two, four, six months ago, and we need to do better by our children by getting them back in school, as soon as we can, and as safely as we can.”
Microsoft’s Smith said great communities come together in a crisis.
“This is clearly one of the great crises of our lifetimes,” he said.
Smith called for more support for people living paycheck to paycheck, for the social safety net mostly provided by government and nonprofits, and for more to support the most vulnerable, the elderly, who are deservedly early in line for the vaccine.
“But we need to do more to help and support the youngest in our communities as well — our kids,” Smith said. “… This is our home, our home community, and so more than anything today, we want to lend our voice, our money, our technology, and our support to join the many others who are rallying and need to rally even more in the new year so we can all do what it takes to support the state through this crisis and into an inclusive and healthy recovery.”