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North Carolina Parents Make Online Learning Work at Home

Guilford County, N.C., schools will go on spring break next week, but it’s now been nearly three weeks of trying to learn while out of the classroom for most of the district’s about 72,000 students.

by Jessie Pounds, News & Record / April 3, 2020
Extra beds are staged just outside the trauma center in the emergency room at UF Health Jacksonville as they prepare for more COVID-19 cases. [Provided by UF Health Jacksonville] TNS

(TNS) — Angelica Esparza spent the first week schools were closed using just her smartphone to access online learning for her children — and dealing with the frustration that caused.

After picking up a donated, refurbished laptop at Bessemer Elementary in North Carolina on March 23, the online learning for her children has been going much easier, she said.

She said on Tuesday she is happy with the system they set up, with her 5 year old using the computer for learning in the morning, along with his 3-year-old sibling who now gets online speech therapy. In the early afternoon, her 15 year old takes over the computer.

Esparza is one of tens of thousands of Guilford County, N.C., parents figuring out how to adapt to having their children learning at home.

Guilford County Schools will go on spring break next week, but it’s now been nearly three weeks of trying to learn while out of the classroom for most of the district’s about 72,000 students.

Tony Watlington, the district’s chief of schools, said officials are trying to track down a little under a thousand students who have yet to log in to the district’s online learning system, as well as about 7,700 who logged on during the week of March 23, but not this week.

Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said it seems like internet connectivity is the No. 1 parent concern.

“We are hearing from families every day that access to internet connectivity remains a serious issue,” she said. “The inequities in access are startling and clear.”

Second most common concern after that, she said, is families not having enough computers or tablets for everyone that needs to use one. There’s a smaller subset of parents, she said, still dealing with log-on issues, like having to reset a password or knowing where to click, with the district’s Canvas online learning system.

Parent internet concerns include both not having a home connection and having internet reliability problems, she said.

Oakley said some families have used the hotspots the district has set up in school parking lots — in particular she’s heard of people using the ones at Eastern High School and Monticello-Brown Summit Elementary, both in more rural areas of the county.

And she said the district is now trying to get the state and federal governments to step in to help expand high speed internet and increase free access.

In a move that has been applauded by district leaders, Charter Communications announced March 13 that it would offer 60 days of free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access to households with K-12 or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription. It also waived installation fees for new student households.

On March 25, they expanded that offer to K-12 and college educators as well.

Oakley said the district has publicized that offer to families. However, she also said that some families who wanted completely free internet but had Spectrum internet at some time in the past have told the district they have been running into roadblocks.

The News & Record requested from Charter Communications, but did not receive, statistics about how many student homes in Guilford County the company has connected with Spectrum internet thus far during the school closure.

Watlington said that as of Wednesday, the district had distributed 12,303 electronic devices to students. That includes loans of tablets and laptops by the district, and refurbished laptops being donated to students by Guilford Education Alliance and Technology for the Future.

The distributions have increased each day over the last eight days, he said, and he expects them to continue. On Thursday, he said, the district got in a shipment of iPads, with more on the way. He asked any parents who are still lacking a device for their child to call their school.

The distributions of devices have meant that many school campuses have not been as quiet or empty as they might have been otherwise during the state-mandated closure, which is expected to last through at least mid-May.

One day last week, parents lined up their cars in the Western Guilford Middle School parking lot, waiting to pick up tablets or laptops on loan to their students. School staff conferred with them directly at their cars.

In one of those vehicles sat Shannon Pena, who has a child at Guilford College as well as a 16 year old and 11 year old in Guilford County Schools.

“I think they are both doing good,” she said of her younger children. “They like being home, they just miss their friends.”

Both she and her husband are now working from home, Pena said.

It’s been tricky with five people all trying to share computers and use the internet for school, college, and work, but the experience hasn’t all been difficult.

She’s enjoyed having her children home and being able to spend more time together. Plus, she said, she’s getting more of a glimpse into their school work than she would have otherwise.

Jaquil Smith, who has a son at Western Guilford Middle and was part of the same line of cars, said that while nobody could really have anticipated the coronavirus epidemic, she does think about how things could have been different if the school district had been more prepared.

It was difficult waiting almost two weeks without a computer for her son, when she knew his school had tablets and laptops that students used in class just sitting there.

She worried that he would fall behind if he didn’t have what he needed to learn at home. His education, she said, is a top priority.

©2020 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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