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Betty Hunter and her rising eighth grader had a challenging spring of distance learning.
On one hand, Hunter felt “blessed” that her son, Angel, received at least some form of live instruction each day from his teachers at the Mary L. Booker Leadership Academy, the San Francisco charter school he attended this spring. Educators also made themselves available through office hours, another plus.
Then there were the struggles. Hunter was forced to balance her day job and serve as her son’s de facto teacher. Angel, already behind his grade level in math, had trouble with multiplication and slid further. Special education services were elusive. Poor internet connectivity in the public housing development where they live sometimes meant missing out on virtual lessons.
As schools weigh daunting changes to physically reopen, they also are under pressure to improve the quality and access to distance learning — which this spring meant frequent engagement opportunities for some students, and less so for several others.
Either in response to local outbreaks, out of necessity to support hybrid scheduling, or because of parents’ concerns, some form of distance learning is likely to remain part of how California schools educate students like Angel.
The budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom makes clear the state expects schools to hold in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” this fall. Education leaders and a group of pediatricians want students to return to school, saying a spring away from classrooms resulted in widespread learning loss most acute in disadvantaged students.
Plans for physically reopening, however, remain uncertain for most California schools. Some parents and teachers at high risk are apprehensive about a return to campuses. The state’s rapidly changing public-health picture has made it harder to plan for reopenings in August and early September. Despite a no-cuts education budget, there remain extraordinary costs to deal with the complex logistics of creating socially distant schools that mitigate the risk of coronavirus spread.
The challenges and costs for ensuring better distance learning opportunities are also steep. State schools chief Tony Thurmond has said it would cost the state billions of dollars to equip all 6 million students with computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, and improve internet connectivity across the state. New standards for distance learning approved by the governor and state legislators aim to elevate the quality of distance learning and interaction students have with their teachers.
Even though this spring had its shortcomings, Hunter plans to keep her son home when he begins eighth grade at San Francisco Unified’s Denman Middle School — wary that a return to campus could mean risking potential coronavirus exposure for her son and his immunocompromised grandparents.
Hunter and other parents with the Innovate Public Schools nonprofit are lobbying the district to provide at least two hours of live instruction a day, prioritize access to devices and internet for low-income students, and create a plan with parents to address students’ “COVID slide.”
“My son is already behind,” Hunter said. “It’s scary. If we don’t create a plan (for distance learning) now, over the summer, then students will only continue to fall further and further behind.”
An enormous digital divide
When schools unexpectedly closed their doors en masse in mid-March, one of the most immediate hurdles reconnecting students with their instructors was the state’s yawning digital divide.
Across the state, hundreds of thousands of families lacked internet access or the necessary technology for online learning, hampering their chances to participate. Though many districts bulk purchased computers this spring, the digital gap remains huge.
As of mid-June, schools in California reported needing 765,000 devices and 416,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, according to estimates provided by the California Department of Education. The state had distributed 65,000 devices and 100,000 hot spots, a fraction of the total need.
Thousands of schools across California say they need more computers and Wi-Fi hotspots for their students and teachers, though responses from a state survey show higher need in Central Valley communities, as well as widespread demand for reliable internet that extends to students in rural and urban schools.
In Los Angeles, approximately 250,000 households with school-age children did not have a computer or broadband internet for online learning this spring, according to a policy brief by the University of Southern California. Connectivity needs were strongly tied to families’ income levels, with poorer households more likely to be digitally shut out.
The pandemic highlighted the gaps in infrastructure among California’s school districts that allowed some local systems move to distance learning more nimbly than schools that did not have enough computers and hotspots to immediately distribute to students. Though the amount of funding for school infrastructure differs across local districts, several local leaders whose schools were prepared with technology said it was the result of years of thoughtful decision-making. Across the state, many households either can’t afford high-speed internet or live in areas of the state where connectivity is unreliable.
Bridging California’s digital divide, which Thurmond has described as “embarrassing,” comes with steep price tags, though state leaders have urged schools to ensure students have the necessary technology for the fall as part of their reopening plans.
It would cost $500 million to equip all students with technology for distance learning, and $6 billion to improve broadband access across California, according to Thurmond. Since April, he has called on technology companies and philanthropies to donate to the cause, and the state has pressured providers such as Verizon to offer affordable internet access for low-income families.
“While we have made good progress in our efforts to close the digital divide, hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable students and families still lack access to the basic tools needed to connect to their learning,” Thurmond said. “In today’s world, technology is as important as electricity.”
Addressing uneven implementation
The quality of learning and opportunities for engagement varied greatly for the state’s students this spring.
Where some schools already had the infrastructure to teach students online, others did not, delaying their distance learning rollouts by more than a month in some instances. While some schools set clear expectations that teachers had to connect with students each day, or for a set amount of time each week, some parents in schools that didn’t said they received little support or interaction from their educators.
Some migrant students in households financially strained by a pandemic-induced economic downturn balanced their schooling with working in the fields to help provide for their families. The school year essentially ended March 13 — the Friday when most districts announced campus closures — for an unknown number of students as they disconnected from their schools and never returned to the fold.
The closures adversely affected the state’s English learners, which includes 1 in every 5 California students and whose progress depends on being able to interact with classmates who are fluent. Some 34% of the 423 teachers and administrators who responded to a student engagement survey by Californians Together said their English learners averaged an hour or less of face-to-face instruction per week during distance learning.
A national analysis of nearly 500 school districts found that about just one-third of districts expected their teachers to deliver instruction after physical school closures.
“Not all students got the same level of instruction or support from their schools,” said Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a Stanford University-based research center. “And we know that, to a large extent, the students who are most vulnerable were in many cases getting the least support instructionally.”
The learning experience proved different even among a student’s teachers. Marta Lopez, a Santa Ana mom of three, said two of her children received mixed levels of contact from their instructors. They each had six teachers at Carr Intermediate School this spring, some who regularly communicated with them and offered live instruction. The majority, Lopez said, “just assigned homework.”
Distance learning, Lopez said, was a poor substitute for in-person instruction, adding that she wants her children to return to school so they can socialize with their classmates and be more engaged in school. With little guidance from her children’s school, Lopez spent hours each weekday making sure that her kids remained on top of their classes, sometimes researching how-to videos on YouTube to help with their homework.
Not all classmates would log in to her children’s virtual classes, Lopez observed, and she lamented that the school did not make completing homework mandatory. Because her youngest child, a rising fourth grader, and her oldest, a rising freshman, had virtual classes at the same time, she always implored her third child to stay off of the internet, so as not to disrupt the household’s weak connection.
“I would prefer for them to go back to school in person, because doing the work from home is very difficult,” Lopez said in spanish. “It’s difficult for the students, and I understand that it’s hard for teachers.”
The state budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom includes new standards for distance learning that attempt to address some the inconsistencies in schools’ implementation this spring.
The new standards will require “daily live interaction” between students and their instructors under distance learning, or risk losing state funding. Schools will have to track student attendance and engagement — which the state did not require this spring.
They’ll also have to ensure students are equipped with devices and internet for online learning and devise plans for engaging students if they disengage with their school for more than three days.
The standards do not set requirements for how much live instruction schools should offer to students. Though there’s a dearth of research on effective distance learning strategies, experts say live instruction should be a staple of distance learning and parents in many communities have called for more opportunities for live instruction.
In a June legislative hearing, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, told legislators that schools should offer at least one hour of daily live instruction for students under distance learning, with up to four hours a day depending on students’ age.
A coalition of civil rights groups urged lawmakers to include a requirement of at least three hours of live instruction a day for distance learning. The coalition of groups said they were wary that the new standards “open the door for most instructional minutes to be filled through ‘assignments.’”
The state’s new distance learning standards give schools latitude in how they set up their programs for the fall. For instance, though the standards set a minimum number of daily instructional minutes, schools would be able to meet those requirements through a combination of interaction between students and teachers and the “time value” of schoolwork students would be assigned to complete.
“We believe that we will see consistency from classroom to classroom,” Thurmond said of the new distance learning requirements, adding that state guidance on distance learning standards is forthcoming.
“Even though it won’t be a one size fits all, we think that we’ll see consistency that will support quality in the continuity of learning.”
Challenges for students in need
This spring was more difficult for students already in need of greater attention from their schools.
Many of the foster care and juvenile justice youth Megan Stanton-Trehan represents as director of the Youth Justice Education Clinic at Loyola Law School struggled to acquire technology for distance learning, and the efforts from schools to engage with them varied.
A Los Angeles Unified student finished the semester doing schoolwork on a cell phone, making it difficult to remain involved in school. Another student with anxiety who received little support from her school became overwhelmed with online work and “kind of shut down and stopped doing anything,” Stanton-Trehan said. Some clients’ schools “stepped up” and sent employees to personally deliver them a computer at their home after learning that their students lacked transportation to pick up a device, she said.
“The challenging thing is that it’s been really unevenly done across school districts,” Stanton-Trehan said of distance learning. “It really just depends on the luck of the draw for where the kids are, and that’s problematic.”
Behind on credits, Obed Lerma was determined to make up his coursework so he can graduate on time, but repeated technical difficulties stifled efforts to finish schoolwork. The rising junior at Leland High in San Jose frequently has had to reset the password for his student email, a problem that’s persisted after he briefly disenrolled from school. But what was a technical annoyance soon became an impediment toward accessing work during distance learning.
Though teachers were supportive and reachable, Lerma said distance learning was “a new thing to me.”
“I thought it was going to be a little easier, but it’s honestly hard,” he said.
On days when he couldn’t log in, Lerma tried to keep his mind busy, writing songs in his notebook or helping his mom with cooking.
“I’m really trying to get my credits up, I’m really trying to graduate,” Lerma said. “I just want a better future for me. I want to be an engineer.”
Jamie Olney, a middle-school teacher in the Empire Union School District east of Modesto, said some students will have experienced severe learning loss by the time school begins in the fall. Addressing students left behind in distance learning will require urgent responses from the state and local districts, Olney told a panel of legislators.
When her district transitioned from paper packets to live instruction the week of May 4, Olney had yet to hear from one of her English learners. The student had no way to pick up a computer from school because she had to care for a younger niece and her mother worked 12-hour shifts at a local packing plant. After attempting to deliver a computer to the trailer park where she lived, Olney found that their household had no internet.
The Empire district will not offer summer school, Olney said, and in between the 5-month gap between closures and the start of the new term, the student will have gone from being able to write five-paragraph essays to struggling to speak English.
Students like this one “need and deserve so much more” schooling during the pandemic than they receive, Olney said.
“Unfortunately, her experience is far too common,” she said.