Distance Learning Poses Challenges for Schools and Families During Outbreak

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The coronavirus outbreak forced Los Angeles schools to close last month, abruptly placing teachers, students and their families in home-based learning setups whether they were prepared for it or not. The crisis is compounding societal problems that existed before the crisis and challenging schools to adapt curriculum to a new normal.

The Covid-19 outbreak has shut down entire sectors of society, including the public education system in California, which has over 17,500 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s 6.2 million students will learn from home through the end of the school year, though local education and health officials may decide when classrooms open again.

Los Angeles Unified School District, which operates more than 1,400 schools serving nearly 600,000 students, announced in March it would transition instruction to a “distance learning” format. The district has given some students take-home work packets while promoting websites and phone apps so other students can complete coursework, create art at home or watch online learning videos.

The switch from in-person teaching to at-home learning is unfamiliar — but navigable — terrain for some families and a barrier to learning for others, especially those who lack access to the internet, struggle to pay rent or have other concerns that existed before the outbreak. 

For LA single mother Betty Lee’s three children, distance learning means not seeing friends, spending too much time in front of computer screens and missing out on key performances in their high school’s musical and orchestra clubs.

Living in a Northeast LA apartment with no backyard during an outbreak also means Lee’s kids can’t go out as much as they’d like to.

“They have nowhere to go out to do anything,” Lee said in an interview. “They’re cooped up.”

Lee is not an educator and is working to keep her kids motivated to work at home. But she says more support is needed for parents and students.  

“Teachers are trying hard as they can as best as they can,” said Lee. “But I have no idea what assignments are due or past due and it’s difficult navigating all the apps.”

Tracking students’ online learning is not only a problem for Lee. At least a quarter of all high school students failed to check in to online classes on any given day last week, compared with 32% the previous week, according to an LAUSD spokesperson.

Parents can attend an online LAUSD training next week on how to support students at home, but Lee said she will miss the training since it’s during work hours and her job is considered essential.

Susan Reccelle, a single mother of three LAUSD students, said her household has internet but only one computer to share, forcing her children to navigate learning apps on small cellphone screens.

“It’s definitely been a struggle,” said Reccelle, who lives in the Sunland-Tujunga community in LA County.

The family was relieved when Reccelle’s oldest daughter, who attends Verdugo Hills High School, received a Chromebook from her school. The younger children jump on the computer in the evening after Reccelle, who is working from home during the outbreak, is done for the day. 

An LAUSD spokesperson said in a statement the district is spending more than $100 million to purchase laptop computers and Verizon internet hotspots for students. A hotline is set up for parents to request them. 

Spectrum is also offering 60 days of free internet access to low-income residents. LAUSD estimates at least 100,000 of its students lack internet access.

High school students are being prioritized for the initial device distribution, LAUSD said. 

The schools Reccelle’s children attend have not been keeping track of attendance or following their progress closely, but she doesn’t blame teachers for the circumstances.

“It’s been hard on teachers,” said Reccelle. “A lot of them are not up to date with the digital world themselves.” 

The family, which plays in the backyard of their home to decompress, picks up free meal packs from the local school every day, an option many families are turning to during the outbreak. At least 80% of students in the school district – the second largest in the U.S. – come from a family living in poverty.

A fundraiser for the district’s “LA Students Most In Need” fund has collected $1.6 million as of April 3, according to LAUSD. Donations will help fund the district’s more than 60 meal distribution sites — which have given out at least 4.5 million meals already — and to purchase computers for students.

“Funds will also be used to address the digital divide, providing devices and digital libraries and books to enable students to continue learning during the crisis caused by Covid-19,” LAUSD said in a statement.

During spring break, families can continue picking up two meals daily per student. The meals are a lifeline for working-class families of students that Kirti Baranwal, an LAUSD second and third grade Spanish teacher, interacts with daily.

“Many families are struggling to put food on the table,” said Baranwal, adding that families are afraid their cramped living spaces make them more susceptible to contracting Covid-19. “This is learning in crisis. We’re taking our time and supporting people where they’re at.”

Baranwal, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Community School, said some families are afraid letting someone install internet at home could expose them to federal immigration agents. 

“We need to make sure kids’ stress levels are low and that’s not the case right now,” Baranwal said. “All these policies in place that value money over lives are being exacerbated and amplified to levels that are really heartbreaking.”

The district has also set up a mental health hotline for students and their families dealing with fear, anxiety and other feelings stemming from the outbreak.

Baranwal said United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing public school teachers, is pushing for a district policy ensuring students’ grades won’t be lower than what they were before schools shuttered.

“If not, then what we’re grading is privilege,” Baranwal said. “Middle-class families have basic needs met so they can think about learning.”

Gisele Ragusa, professor of engineering and education at the University of Southern California, said problems with distance learning won’t be easily solved by giving every LAUSD family internet access.

“It’s not as simple as tossing the dough,” Ragusa said. “You can’t just hand technology to people who’ve never had access and expect them to know what to do, or even expect their teachers to know.”

School districts will have to think creatively about changing curriculum to meet the unique needs of the moment, Ragusa said, noting LAUSD has partnered with media companies KCET and PBS to offer at-home learning videos to supplement coursework.

“Most kids have a TV but having them sit in front of a TV isn’t fabulous either,” Ragusa said.

Ragusa said schools’ lesson plans should help students and their families understand how the pandemic is affecting life around the world and in their city, especially for students’ nearly 16,000 peers who were homeless in the district in 2018.

“Ignoring this pandemic, not discussing it with kids, is the worst thing to do,” Ragusa said. “We have to address this scientifically in the context of reality.”

Schools should ensure students’ learning prospects won’t suffer due to the outbreak – the University of California’s removal of SAT requirements for admissions is one example, Ragusa said – but they should also adopt “wall-less” education that bring communities into classrooms.

“Show kids they can make meaningful change and learn from this crisis to impact their community,” Ragusa said. “If kids in LA don’t learn, it becomes everybody’s burden.” 

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The LAUSD hotline to request laptops and hotspots is 213.443.1300.
The district’s mental health hotline is 213.241.3840.

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