Education is continuing, more or less, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic – more for families with resources, less for those without.
And for an alarmingly high number of students in Spokane and the rest of the nation, genuine learning isn’t happening at all. Despite the efforts of Spokane Public Schools and other districts, many families have simply given up.
The reasons include a lack of internet connections and online expertise as well as poverty, pandemic-related unemployment and homelessness.
Eight weeks in, some parents have hit the breaking point.
“For some families, school may not be the top priority at this point,” said Tricia Kannberg, principal of Regal Elementary School in northeast Spokane, where seven out of eight students receive free or reduced-price meals.
Last week at Regal, only 49% of students logged on to Clever, the district’s main platform for distance learning and the gateway to other online applications.
“Actually, I was pleasantly surprised at 49%,” said Kannberg, who said teachers and staff are reaching out to those who are absent. “School was their safe place, and maybe their current residence isn’t the safest place.”
Fortunately, Clever logins have grown steadily since spring break as more families have adjusted to distance learning. Two weeks ago, only 35% of Regal students were logging in.
“There’s been an uptick because it’s become pretty clear to parents that we’re in for the long haul,” Kannberg said.
The problem is districtwide and nationwide. Of the district’s 34 elementary schools, only 12 had more than 70% of students log in to the software to access teaching via video conference or online schoolwork.
At five schools, participation was less than 50%; all are located in northeast Spokane. In contrast, Clever logins were highest at schools in northwest Spokane and the South Hill.
Several teachers said last week they suspect as few as 10% of their students are fully engaged in distance learning.
The numbers are confirmation of what educators already suspected: The coronavirus pandemic and the closure of school buildings will only widen the learning gap between families with resources and those without.
Across the country, teachers are reporting that their attempts at distance learning are failing to reach large numbers of students.
Hundreds of thousands of students are still without computers or internet access. Those who do log on to access lessons and homework have countless distractions: They are babysitting siblings, sharing one laptop with three other siblings, or perhaps lying in bed during lessons.
For other children, learning is disrupted for the simple reason that the family doesn’t own a printer.
“We know this situation is causing a lot of trauma for families,” Associate Superintendent Adam Swinyard told the school board recently. “We have been working hard to provide guidance to our families and staff.”
At Spokane Public Schools, the expectations are straightforward, and they are clearly explained on the district website.
In addition to logging on to Clever, students should check their Office 365 email and/or Microsoft Teams account at the beginning of each week to find out the plan for the week.
They are expected to complete their daily assignments, and teachers give instructions on how to submit work for feedback and grading.
Also, students are encouraged to attend weekly live sessions hosted by their teacher.
How many are truly engaged in distance learning? No one is quite sure, especially in middle schools and high schools, because students are less reliant on Clever.
At the elementary school level, participation may be higher than the Clever logins, Swinyard notes, because some students may be bookmarking other distance-learning apps and going straight to those, bypassing Clever.
On the other hand, genuine engagement may be even lower, because some are logging on to Clever and then walking away.
That presents a tracking problem for schools, which rely on Clever logins as the primary method of gauging participation.
“We are trying a lot of things to reach students and move them on to technology,” Kannberg said. “We’ve put in some pretty robust measures to keep them involved and we are working hard to reach students.
“Also some may be engaging in a different way. They might be using a guide, or parents are taking it on their own, going on to other websites.”
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