Families & the Community

Will Learning Gaps Deepen as Schools Stay Closed?

By Christina A. Samuels — March 27, 2020 8 min read
Technicians Antoine Pratt, left, and Jonathan Copeland help parents and students with laptop issues at a mobile “help desk” outside of Highland Springs High School in Henrico County, Va. It’s part of a district effort to ensure that all students have access to digital lessons during the coronavirus crisis.
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Deatrice Edie, who lives in Miami, already juggles three fast-food jobs, at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Papa John’s.

With the abrupt closure of Florida schools to slow the coronavirus pandemic, she’s also expected to shoulder another job: making sure her 16-year-old son, Jahiem Jackson, keeps up with his 10th grade coursework, now being delivered online.

Jahiem, like most teenagers, has other ideas, Edie said.

“He’s a typical teenager. He’s going to get out, he’s going to run around with his friends,” she said. “The minute I hit the door to go to work, he’s doing something else. It’s hard, because I’m not there.”

Edie knows her son is falling behind, but she doesn’t have much choice but to work, especially as her jobs have already started to cut her hours. As a shift leader at McDonald’s, her main job, she makes $9.18 an hour.

“It’s just a mess, period,” she said.

The school closures gave parents and schools little time to prepare for a massive shift in their lives. Parents became teachers, many while attempting to continue their regular jobs. K-12 education, built on face-to-face interaction, started a bumpy transition to providing learning remotely. And the most vulnerable students are facing social as well as academic losses.

The abrupt change is exposing inequities of all kinds: There are parents who are able to work from home and parents who don’t have that option. Some districts have rolled out robust e-learning plans, and other systems are still thinking through how to support students who don’t have regular access to computers and the internet. Some children can easily adapt to elearning and others, because of their special needs, can’t seamlessly transition to computer-based instruction.

It’s a tough adjustment for all. School work has sometimes taken a back seat.

Becca Rosselli, a licensed practical nurse in Lockport, N.Y. outside Buffalo, is a single parent. Her 6-year-old daughter, a kindergartner, is living with Rosselli’s mother temporarily while Roselli works. Rosselli’s mother is immune-compromised, and the family decided it would be safer for Rosselli not to visit because her job may put her at heightened risk of catching the coronavirus.

Rosselli said that prior to this, she had never spent more than a day away from her child. Now it has been a week.

Ella is excelling in school, Rosselli said, so she isn’t worried about her academic progress. But there has been an emotional toll. She’s taken to making video calls to her daughter at night, rather than distract and upset her during the day.

“This has definitely been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Rosselli said. “But this is not only protecting my mom but it’s also protecting [Ella] too.”

In his two years working at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Va., Malcolm Jones had turned Room 123 into a sanctuary for vulnerable students.

As a site coordinator for the organization Communities in Schools, Jones was at school from morning until evening, supporting nearly 100 teenagers struggling with poverty, family upheaval, and other obstacles to learning.

The coronavirus pandemic upended that work.

Now, he’s at home with his wife and five children, ages 1 to 12, juggling work schedules and access to the computer and the phone.

But as chaotic as his home life has suddenly become, he’s acutely aware how much harder this is for his students. Some students are juggling uncertainty, hunger, and family responsibilities.

“These students were distracted from their world by coming to this building that was outside of the community where they faced all these barriers,” Jones said. “Now, they’re stuck at home in that chaos. Who can really expect some of these students to do that [academic work packet] when they’re at home starving or they’re at home taking care of their siblings?”

Inequities Emerge

Sometimes, the inequities show up with the same schools and families. Jane Rothbaler, a single parent whose twin 7-year-old sons are in different 2nd grade classes in the Del Mar Union district in California’s San Diego County, has received a full slate of activities for son Declan. That includes a daily 90-minute English/ language arts block, 60 minutes of math, and 30 minutes of reading. The teacher for her other son, Tate, has yet to send out activities.

But the presumption that she has at least 2 ½ hours to oversee school work already has her throwing up her hands.

“My job has not slowed down at all, and that’s fair; I don’t begrudge them that. I’m getting paid,” said Rothbaler, a lawyer. But that leaves her little time to supervise lessons. She contemplated just letting her kids repeat 2nd grade if they fall too far behind but felt guilty about even considering that option, when other families in her community seem to be able to make it work.

Rothbaler ultimately decided to risk outside contact and hired a former preschool teacher, recently laid off, to come to her house for four hours a day and oversee schoolwork at a cost of $400 a week.

Students With Disabilities

Laurena Baum also has twin sons, 14-year-old 9th graders, enrolled in a San Diego County district—Vista Unified. During normal times, one son, Hunter, is in general education classes; Logan is educated in a self-contained classroom, uses a special device to communicate, and has a one-to-one aide.

For Hunter, teachers were able to switch to an online environment easily. He’s getting assignments in all his classes. He can upload his work or take photos as proof of completion.

The teacher in the self-contained classroom has regularly contacted parents, Baum said, and has provided resources to use at home, such as audiobooks and links to learning websites. But there’s little way the academic program Logan was receiving in school can happen at home.

“I’m grateful for what I’m getting for Hunter,” she said, “but I do feel like I’m not getting the same thing for Logan. But yet, I don’t fault his teacher, because I don’t know what else he could do.”

School districts responded to the shutdowns in different ways: Some were able to revamp platforms already in use to push out lesson plans to families, with a few even offering real-time lessons for students.

Others, citing concerns with not being able to provide equal access to students who lack devices or internet access, students with disabilities, and English-language learners, provided some educational resources but said they would all be optional.

Planning for a Long Haul

“I know there are equity concerns, and that’s what’s driving some of this caution,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Her organization has been tracking the online-learning plans for schools. Of the nearly 50 districts analyzed so far, about half haven’t provided any guided curriculum to students. They’re sharing links and leaving lesson delivery to parents. Others were on break when the closures were announced.

“We have to figure out how to take an approach that will work for all kids and we have to figure it out quickly. This is a national emergency: We need to figure out ways to solve problems, not stand scared.”

Now that it’s becoming clear that the closures will last for several weeks or even longer, school districts are working fast to adapt. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district after New York City, recently announced a partnership with Verizon to get internet access to all students. It also plans to make an emergency investment of $100 million in computers, internet connectivity, and training for students, teachers, and families.

In contrast, for the 650-student Mehnomen district in northwestern Minnesota, weekly packets on paper will serve as the bulk of instructional materials, said Superintendent Jason Melby. Anything online will be purely supplemental, since many of the district’s students don’t have regular computer access.

“Our kids struggle without a routine,” Melby said. “Putting this distance-learning plan in place will hopefully provide some routine and stability for these kids.”

But as schools get their online education up and running, they should also think about how to support children who are experiencing the trauma of this disconnection, said Siobhan Davenport, the executive director of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, which provides support to girls in middle and high school in the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland.

The organization has been fielding calls from girls and families who need the basics—food, diapers, formula, paper products. Some of the girls are now caring for not just younger siblings but also other relatives, because child-care options have evaporated. Others have lost their jobs because of business closures.

In addition to academic programs, she wants her students to be able to interact online with school counselors, social workers, or psychologists, she said, “some access where students can engage on discussion, how they’re feeling for the day.’”

There may be a positive outcome in all the upheaval, said Monica Goldson, the chief executive officer of Prince George’s County schools, in Maryland. The district is surveying families on whether they can connect to the internet and if they have computer access. Many in the community relied on free internet provided by sources such as libraries, but those are closed now.

Prince George’s will soon have an emergency meeting to discuss purchasing computers and devices to allow families to connect to the internet. Remote learning is scheduled to start in early April, Goldson said.

She is buoyed by the community’s desire to get students back to learning.

“My drive is the look on the kids’ faces,” said Goldson, who dropped in on a videoconference a district teacher held with some of her students. “They are eager to learn. The kids are ready to go back to school. … This has caused us to look at teachers differently, in a better light. And hopefully, it will cause our children to look at learning in a better light.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2020 edition of Education Week as Will Learning Gaps Widen as Schools Stay Closed?


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