Educators Concerned Remote Learning Worsens Inequities

The past three months of remote learning have exposed and widened disparities among New Hampshire’s students, especially for students without Internet access, those learning English and those with special needs.

by Josie Albertson-Grove, The New Hampshire Union Leader / June 15, 2020
Slow or unreliable internet access is a reality for millions of Americans. ben dalton/Flickr, CC BY-SA

(TNS) — The past three months of remote learning have exposed and widened disparities among New Hampshire’s students, especially for students without Internet access, those learning English and those with special needs.

The three challenges converged in the home of Yeidys Jimenez.

Jimenez is the mother of three Nashua schoolchildren — a high schooler, a middle schooler and a kindergartner, all learning English. Her youngest also has autism.

Jimenez is comfortable with computers, but Google Classroom, Zoom and the laptops and tablets the school district has loaned families were all new to her.

Through an interpreter, Jimenez said her older children want more help with their online classes and have felt frustrated at times. The youngest has loved online classes but misses the routines of school.

“At school he is focused, whereas at home, he does not want to do homework, he does not pay attention, and his bedtime routine is out of sync,” Jiminez said.

Her older children’s school routines have been disrupted too, she said. “They are irritated and inundated with so much work and feel they do not have enough support from their teachers,” Jimenez said. “They are afraid of not passing their grade.”

She is doing her best to help her children. But she has been frustrated too, Jimenez said.

“I think, that if remote learning continues in the fall, I will go crazy,” she said. Of course, her children’s health and safety come first, Jimenez said. She joked that parents should be looking for the cure for COVID-19.

Distance learning

Jimenez’s family is hardly alone, said Aubrey Scheopner Torres, associate professor of education at Saint Anselm College.

“While districts, schools, and teachers did their best to continue to provide accommodations for students, those accommodations were limited by the fact that there was really only one mode of instruction: remote, online learning,” she said.

Teachers have been supportive and offered tips, she said, but as a parent, Scheopner Torres said she was often left to figure out strategies to help her daughter — who got accommodations for a disability in school — finish assignments.

“Her teacher simply couldn’t be there to provide support given the circumstances,” Scheopner Torres said.

Families she has spoken with also said they particularly struggled to help children in different grades, because the procedures and tools were different for each child, Scheopner Torres said.

“For example, some were directed to use Google Classroom while others got emails from teachers with an outline of assignments.”

Students who live in pockets of the state without high-speed internet have had a harder time accessing school work, as have those who did not have computers at home.

“Even in my own courses at Saint Anselm, I had several students who had unreliable internet,” she said. They worried about connecting in time for classes and one-on-one meetings and about turning in assignments online.

The tech gap

School districts have done their best to help students.

Greg Rodriguez, director of IT for Nashua schools, led a scramble to deliver computers and internet connections in the Gate City. The district loaned 1,760 small laptops to students, Rodriguez said. He worked to connect qualifying families to Comcast’s free internet program.

Manchester schools handed out 3,600 laptops, and helped families connect to the same internet program, said Manchester Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen.

The internet isn’t blazing fast, at 30 megabits per second, but Rodriguez said it was sufficient to watch videos, participate in video calls and download schoolwork.

Allen said Manchester’s English learners are getting home visits from staff, and tutoring from Saint Anselm College students.

The computers help, said Yeney Armenteros, Nashua’s communications coordinator for English Language Learners, but siblings might have to share one laptop, where a wealthier home might have more than one computer.

“Online learning is like coming to a new country,” she said, with new customs to learn and new skills to master. Those add to the challenges immigrant students already face.

Students learning English tend to be a little shy about speaking up in class, Armenteros said, and she worried they might slip through the cracks online. A teacher might not notice a struggling student on a Zoom call.

Playing catch-up

Armenteros said students, families and teachers have all been doing a great job, but she still worried her students may have fallen behind this spring.

Allen said Manchester teachers are trying to figure out how they will assess students’ progress, as they plan for what school might look like in the fall.

“With all the disparities and inequities that came out with remote learning, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to make up for it,” said Meghan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, one of the state’s teachers’ unions.

Tuttle said some districts are talking about spending part of next fall on reviewing topics from the spring, and said districts would likely have to conduct some kind of testing to figure out how much progress students made during remote learning.

She hopes the state Department of Education will make a decision soon about resuming in-person school in the fall, so districts and teachers can have more time to plan what they will do to keep the most at-risk students from slipping behind.

©2020 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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