For Students Living in Poverty, “Distance Learning” Remains a Struggle

The health pandemic brought forth by the coronavirus five months ago that has shut down schools, dried up jobs, and paralyzed the local, state and national economies, continues to radically alter the approach to day-to-day life.

Public education, particularly in Southern California, is attempting to move forward on unsteady legs. And the challenges for students in underserved, at-risk communities can be daunting and discouraging.

“I thought this would be temporary,” said Lisa Eisner, a fourth grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). But, she noted, “From March to June, only one student did about 60% percent of the online work while the rest of the 24 students did not even log in.”

Eisner — who like other teachers interviewed for this story requested her school not be identified — said she’s aware that the challenges for her students are vast.

The district has announced that schools would be executing online instruction for the fall since the novel COVID-19 curve had not flattened in California. Superintendent Austin Beutner stated to media outlets that 35,000 teachers and administrators have completed additional training for online instruction, adding, “we have better connected the tools and technologies to simplify how they’re used in the classroom,” although he also admitted there is “no substitute” for being in the actual campus setting.

Computer Access Can’t Do It All

 Now that it’s clear “distance learning” will continue when LAUSD schools resume Aug. 18, some teachers are wondering what this will mean for the education of their students.

 Even though district officials gave every student access to Chromebook computers, without proper WIFI or assistance from parents holding their children responsible to do schoolwork, a Chromebook can provide little help.

“Just because we give a student a hotspot doesn’t mean it always works or lasts,” said Isabel Hernandez, a second grade LAUSD teacher.

Even with training for online learning, teachers say they are still having difficulty planning ahead for the new semester.

“Most parents do not have the luxury of being at home to hold their children responsible to do their homework,” Eisner said. “These parents work and labor all day, and most live in extremely crowded living spaces with other families. Many do not have access to a computer, WIFI, or even food.”

Distance learning has also further “distanced” communication with parents. 

“Out of the 22 students in my classroom, 19 of my students’ parents only speak Spanish,” said Carolyn Peña, a second grade teacher. She said the parents and students in her classroom had a harder time communicating via technology.

Peña also points out there is a large influx of indigenous families who fled Central America. Most of them don’t even speak Spanish.

“One of my student’s mothers speaks ‘Ixil,’ one of the Mayan languages native to her home in Guatemala,” said Peña, sharing that the mother’s 8-year-old daughter or a neighbor has to translate for her.  

Prior to the pandemic, Eisner said, “90% of my fourth grade students were reading at a first grade level. Where a fourth grader’s benchmark is to read 90 words a minute, many of them were reading 15-45 words a minute.” While Eisner felt she was making progress, the online distance learning caused a huge setback in her students’ reading adequacy.

Now, after almost four months later of online teaching, teachers like Eisner fear the challenges will cause an educational deficit for their students. Both Eisner and Peña think the safest decision for the district is to not return students physically back to school. But they also feel “distance learning” is proving to be potentially harmful to their students’ education which, Eisner states, “we will work to make up for.”

Similar Issues for High Schools

At the secondary level, some issues are the same. Teachers Jean-Antoine Ramirez and Dr. Lewis Chappelear, who work in a Title 1 high school with the same demographics and issues, believe the way to combat this is through community engagement. 

“I discussed with other PE teachers that their class would have to resort to a 6th grade PE class where we watch videos, do physiology vocabulary assignments, and should have sporadic Zoom sessions for community purposes,” said Ramirez, a physical education instructor and wrestling coach. “In March I had about 40% participation, which dropped to about 17% by the end of June.”

Moreover, to the disappointment of high school athletes, the spring sports season was canceled.

The state California Interscholastic Foundation office has tentatively approved a 2020-21 high school sports calendar, starting in January 2021, and splitting it into two seasons — winter and spring. Ramirez’s wrestling season, which normally starts in the winter, would now begin in March. But no teams can be formed until students are actually on their campuses.

Chappelear, an instructional technology coordinator, said the challenges of “distance learning” can push teachers and students to new advancements.

“Had you asked me prior to the pandemic if teachers would move their work and grading online, I would have said no,” he said. “Now they have no choice. Since March, I have spent sometimes an average of 6-8 hours online teaching teachers how to teach online and use the online program ‘Schoology.’”

Chappelear has been trying to help his schools’ parents move towards successful “distance learning.”

“I along with 20 other teachers spent hours calling every family whose students did not yet have a Chromebook laptop and if the student could not go to the school to retrieve it, I would drive it to their house,” Chappelear said.

“For those students who expressed how they did not have any internet or WIFI, I would even offer free hotspots and set up Zoom office hours or a table at the school 2-3 times a week for students to come and ask questions.” He said he is committed to the idea of “students won’t care until you show them that you care about them.” 

While President Donald Trump was furious with LAUSD’s decision, threatening to cut federal funding to schools who don’t reopen, these teachers are nonplussed.

“I’m not worried,” Ramirez said. “He can make empty threats, but I know a decision would have to go through the proper checks and balances.”

When asked about feeling prepared about the fall semester, Ramirez expressed he’s been preparing since the decision was confirmed.

“Professionally, I feel prepared. But personally, as coaches we make connections with kids on a personal level, so I will really miss that interaction. But online learning could possibly expose these students to more global learning opportunities.”

Chappelear acknowledges the long and challenging road ahead for students and parents but is optimistic with the positive effects online learning could influence for the education system. He states it could possibly encourage a model of a four-day school week with the fifth day being done online from home.

“I don’t think we could have transformed education as much as we did because of this coronavirus.”