Plunging into remote learning, families find stress, chaos and some surprising wins

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“I can get done more work so much faster than at school,” Riley Slater, 11, said about schooling at home. Photo by Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post.

Melissa Becker is living two versions of the nation’s mass and involuntary move to online education.

As a teacher in a rural corner of northwest Pennsylvania, she’s been told not to teach. Too many students don’t have internet connections, her district has decided, and it wouldn’t be right to leave them behind.

But Becker’s own daughters, who attend a nearby district, are in daily contact with their teachers through online posts and live Zoom meetings, which they access on district-issued iPads. When the children aren’t doing school work, Becker’s family embarks on scavenger-hunt hikes, plays board games and researches recipes from the Great Depression.

At home, she says, “it’s better than I expected.” At work: “It’s so frustrating.”

Across the country, almost all schools have closed to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, with four states saying they are done for the academic year. Schools and districts have been scrambling to salvage the school year with remote learning, hoping to keep students on track. In many places, this week brought the first real attempts.

But early evidence from this new era of home schooling suggests students, teachers and parents are having vastly different experiences, with existing gaps in resources exacerbated and new divides opening, according to more than 40 interviews and hundreds of email exchanges with parents, teachers, administrators and students.

Some districts are delivering organized, rich learning to some children and frustrating dysfunction to others. Different children in the same family sometimes have split experiences.

It’s been especially challenging for families struggling to meet basic needs and in homes where students can’t connect to the Internet. High-poverty districts’ first priority often was setting up meal distribution for children who rely on school for breakfast and lunch, with learning sometimes a secondary concern.

Also hard hit: children with disabilities, those who struggle with technology, and parents who are overwhelmed trying to do their own jobs from home while learning to become amateur teachers. Some teachers report dozens of emails from parents simply trying to log on.

Yet other school systems, including some large, diverse districts, appear to be finding success. That includes schools that invested in technology, that gave every student their own tablet or computer, and where parents are well positioned to help.

In Seattle, Stefan Weitz assumed online learning would be a mess. But he now sees his 15-year-old son, who attends a private school, being forced to think through problems in a deeper way now that he’s working more independently.

“The knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Wow this must be worse,’ ” Weitz said. “But the more thoughtful reaction is there may be real benefits.”

– – –

Becker’s description, of a district not even trying to teach, might sound extreme. But it’s actually common.

Many districts are declining to offer any instruction or grading, concerned that remote learning will not be equitable. Administrators say it is unfair, and possibly illegal, to offer instruction when some students do not have computers or internet. They also worry they will be in violation of federal law if they are not properly serving children with disabilities.

The U.S. Education Department tried to reassure districts that they may offer online education even if it’s not equitable, but school officials still believe they may be vulnerable to lawsuits.

“We are getting promises out of the mouths of legislators and government officials, but the laws and Codes have not changed,” Amy Stewart, the superintendent of the Warren County School District in Russell, Pennsylvania, where Becker teaches, wrote in a letter to faculty. In another note, she wrote that online resources are great for kids who can access them, but “we are not willing to leave our other kids behind.”

A similar situation in Knox County, Tennessee, has Betsy Henderson, a mother of two, frustrated. She wishes teachers would at least offer something to keep children occupied. “This would be a huge help to parents at home with their children and give kids some sense of normalcy,” she said.

Other places would love to teach but are consumed by meeting more basic needs.

In the rural Southwest Local School District in Ohio, 1 in 3 families lives in poverty. The immediate focus there was on distributing meals and figuring out how to get everyone online, said Superintendent John Hamstra.

“There will be a ton of review and very little new learning,” he said. And that’s if students come online at all. Hamstra worries some students will “go dark and we don’t hear from them at all.”

“The student isn’t logging in, and then what?” he said.

– – –

No matter the district, success in this new system appears to depend heavily on parental support, especially for younger students. Yet many parents are caught in economic and logistical crises of their own. Jobs are disappearing. Those still working outside their homes have to worry about staying healthy while also finding child care. Those working from home are forced to juggle their jobs and their new responsibility overseeing school work.

“I feel like the ball is in the parents’ court,” said JT Kaltreider, a first-grade teacher at a high-poverty school in Philadelphia. He sees parents who have no time to help with school, who must leave children home with older siblings or with grandparents who don’t speak English. “It’s very challenging and difficult. I don’t believe there’s much learning happening.”

Parents are told they are failing if they can’t make it work, said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a grass-roots advocacy group for low-income parents. Many are working hard just to survive, only to be confronted with a flood of educational websites and online assignments.

“All of this is a mess,” she said. “People have to be very realistic about where parents are, and they’re just not getting it.”

For parents already overwhelmed with work or life, it may not be helpful to encounter an Instagram-ready schedule divided into neat, colorful blocks, with times designated for learning and creativity and brain breaks. Rodrigues is telling parents: “You need to have pretty low expectations.”

The frustration and burnout are familiar to more affluent parents, too. They may have internet connections and paychecks, but they also might be struggling with a child who has special needs. Or they may be juggling demanding work with multiple child assignments.

In Beverly Hills, California, Shayna Kossove, the chief revenue officer at the fashion media company Who What Wear, is grappling with advertisers that may pull their campaigns because of the coronavirus crisis. She’s also managing the online school work of her 8-year-old son, Kohl, sitting by her side whenever he is working on assignments.

“He doesn’t know how to use Google docs,” she said. The two of them share a computer. “There’s a lot of times when he is watching a video or doing a FaceTime lesson and emails are popping up on top of the screen and I’m grabbing it from him: ‘Wait I have to respond to that!’ ”

– – –

In education, so often the affluent thrive and the poor settle for less. In this sudden age of home schooling, that’s not the whole story.

New York City public schools, the country’s largest district, with 1.1 million children, offers a case study. Even in some affluent areas, schools are struggling to launch strong distant-learning programs, with inconsistent results.

In Lower Manhattan, Naomi Peñahas’s seventh-grader is sailing through online education, which formally began this week. But her fourth-grade twins are facing a “huge learning curve,” particularly her son. He has dyslexia, she said, so she has to sit by his side when he’s working on assignments. She said the school still hasn’t figured out how to provide him with the services he gets in the classroom.

“I think every parent does as good as they can, but this is putting a lot of pressure on us,” she said.

Jay-Len McLean, 18, said he’s unimpressed with the virtual education he’s being offered. A senior at Talented Unlimited High School in Manhattan, and a musician who plays the saxophone, clarinet and flute, he calls online learning “rather unproductive.”

“It’s like I’m teaching myself rather than being taught,” he said. And he misses human interactions: “Just talking to your friends, listening to them reasoning out their answers. Why they thought this interpretation for something was this and not something else. The constant push of the teachers looking at your work, pushing your ideas. That’s all important.”

– – –

Amid the chaos of these first days and weeks, the bigger surprise may be the families for whom online education hasn’t felt like a disaster. In districts big and small, urban and rural, there are parents and students enjoying this new reality, and educators who say it’s working.

In Miami, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he started planning for this in January when he first heard about the coronavirus crisis in China. The Miami-Dade County Public Schools had already invested in digital technology, and the district began creating online curriculum, working with the FBI and the Secret Service on digital security.

As the crisis arrived to the United States, Carvalho negotiated an agreement with the teachers union for remote learning weeks before the schools closed. The district surveyed families to find out who needed computers and distributed 60,000 devices. A plan to feed all 350,000 students was put in place.

“If we are going to persist, let’s do it right,” Carvalho said. “Let’s do it big.”

To be sure, there are complaints. But instruction across the district began two days after schools went dark. Online attendance rates were close to 100% at Miami’s BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School, a magnet school, and in the first week, teachers completed 875 live online lessons. “It’s been an easy transition,” said Kelly Rodriguez, a senior.

At Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Elementary School, in the Sweetwater neighborhood, most of the children come from poor families, and half are learning English. But every class is now online. The biggest challenge is persuading teachers to narrow their focus to a handful of online tools, said principal Marie Orth-Sanchez.

“It’s astonishing,” she said. “I am astonished, and I am part of it.”

Elsewhere, the pandemic forced school systems to swiftly make changes that might have otherwise taken years. Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, plans to spend $100 million to provide devices for students who cannot afford them. It struck a deal with Verizon to deliver free internet to students without service.

“This is the moonshot,” said Superintendent Austin Beutner. “It is that order of magnitude of difficulty, and maybe that magnitude of importance, because we have to do it. It’s not an optional exercise.”

Other, smaller communities can’t afford moonshots. But they’re improvising with some success.

In El Reno, a small town outside Oklahoma City, even Superintendent Craig McVay lacks a good enough broadband to stream videos in his home. He conducted a survey two years ago and found only about 40% of district families have internet access. So McVay plans to deliver worksheets in paper packets – and possibly through the local newspaper.

In Bushnell, Florida, about an hour northeast of Tampa, the school system’s fleet of buses is still up and running, being used to deliver school lunches. So the district put the buses to use for learning, installing WiFi hotspots in them so families can tap in when the buses are parked in their neighborhoods.

It’s so hard to serve children with disabilities remotely that the victories sometimes look small. In Lexington, South Carolina, Ari Waller, a kindergartner, can hear sounds but can’t process them. At school he has a speech therapist, a sign language class and an interpreter. To participate in virtual story time, his mom had to set up two phones on her couch – one with his teacher reading a story, and one with his interpreter on a video conference.

Ahead of the story, “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” the interpreter emailed his mom a diagram for the sign for “coconut,” and she taught it to Ari so he could understand the sentence: “I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree!”

– – –

For all the stress, some parents are finding success – and even fulfillment – in virtual learning.

In Santa Monica, California, Julie Pearl Slater, an actress, and her husband, a film editor, have lost work because of the coronavirus crisis. But they have savings to cushion the blow and are able to be home with their middle-school-age children.

Graham, in eighth grade, is “essentially teaching himself trigonometry,” Slater said. Her daughter, Riley, 11, misses learning from other kids, but sees an upside to school from home. “I can get done more work so much faster than at school,” Riley said. “I don’t have to wait for everyone else in the class.”

Tiffany Simpson of Bakersfield, California, and her 11-year-old daughter have been reading “Old Yeller” together. “In the past, when she’s reading a book with her class, she tries to catch me up but it’s not the same,” Simpson said.

“I am so impressed with how prepared they were,” Danelle Matlack said of her children’s Catholic school in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. On top of online lessons, games and specials such as music and Spanish, the school has encouraged students to dress up with a different theme each day: crazy hair day on Tuesday, pajama day on Friday and, on Wednesday, “dress like an older person in honor of those most at risk.”

“The teachers were ready to roll out their new online learning structures in only three days,” said Sonja McKay, whose daughter attends a charter school in Raleigh, N.C. “Are things perfect? No, but it is truly amazing!”

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