In Gateway Cities, lots of hurdles to remote learning

Challenges with technology, language, home life compound inequities  

SARINA ALVES DISPLAYS a short story on the screen in front of her virtual class of eighth grade English students at Morton Middle School in Fall River. As a boy reads out loud, Alves’s own child makes noise in the background. The boy pauses to struggle with a word with an apology, “Sorry, I’m reading on my phone.”

Of Alves’s 90 students, 15 to 20 attend virtual class each day, and 54 have joined the Google classroom at some point. Some do the assigned work on their own. Some say they cannot wake up in time for her 11:30 a.m. class.

“So much of school is connection and building relationships,” Alves said. “If you don’t have that, it becomes very difficult, especially when you’re trying to teach from afar,” she said.

The state education department issued guidelines recommending that districts have students engage in “meaningful and productive learning” for about half the length of a regular school day, or about three hours. For lots of students, especially in the state’s Gateway Cities, it seems clear that isn’t happening.

Many Massachusetts teachers are making herculean efforts to reach students while school is closed and get them engaged in online learning. Even when done well, it is challenging. And in many cases, students, particularly in low-income areas, are falling through the gaps.

“The inequity of asking folks to take on childcare obligations, school obligations, and work obligations without the wraparound support in school is really exposing the inequity that’s always been there,” said Jessica Gold Boots, who teaches English language learners at Malden High School.

In a district like Fall River – where 70 percent of students are poor and nearly 80 percent are classified as high-needs – Alves is trying to make it work. When school first closed for two weeks, she called and texted all her students. When the closure got extended, she started creating office hours – asking students to join her for “brunch with Mrs. Alves” – but found that kids didn’t show up. She then started her virtual classroom to hold full-blown classes.

Fayth Cordeiro, 14, is one of Alves’s more conscientious students. She wakes up by 9 a.m., attends up to three 45-minute classes a day, and does four or five hours of schoolwork daily. She has a laptop. She asks her teachers for help if she needs it.

But Cordeiro misses her friends and teachers. She is sad to miss her school’s 8th grade graduation, water park field trip, and dinner dance. “I really don’t like remote learning,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like school at all.”

Cordeiro’s mother, Manuela Cabral, a single mom who is furloughed from her job as a corporate trainer for a food company, said her daughter used to finish school then head to taekwondo. Now she sits on the couch and Cabral can occasionally rouse her to take a walk or play a board game. “She’s lonely. She’s depressed, because she’s not in that environment of people and children and activities,” Cabral said.

Cabral and Cordeiro both acknowledge that they are lucky. “Fayth is intelligent enough to do it on her own. How about kids who are struggling in school already?” Cabral said.

It is the question plaguing teachers and school officials statewide.

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Liz Medeiros, a third-grade special needs teacher at Carlton Viveiros Elementary School in Fall River, said half her students do not have consistent access to technology. Some families can watch videos or virtual classrooms, but other students work with paper and pencil. Parents send her a picture of their child’s work, then Medeiros calls students to walk them through assignments.

Medeiros said many Fall River parents are worried about food and job security and are unprepared to run an at-home classroom, particularly for a child with learning differences.

“This situation has put districts like Fall River in the spotlight in terms of the difference between the haves and have-nots,” Medeiros said.

One major have-not is access to technology. Fall River has more than 10,000 students. School Committee vice chairman Mark Costa said 7,000 parents responded to a district survey and identified 4,000 students who needed Chromebooks or laptops. The district delivered the first 500 devices on May 11, and by May 19 had given out 4,000. In mid-May, the district got a $25,000 donation from Amazon, which has a fulfillment center in the city, to buy Chromebooks.

Asked if the district had enough for all the students, Mayor Paul Coogan said, “I wouldn’t go that far…I know we’re making a dent in it.”

“We’re trying to make sure we can get it into their hands even for the last six, seven weeks of school,” Coogan said.

Sarina Alves chatting with a student in pre-COVID days.

The problem goes beyond devices. Coogan said the district has 1,000 students who lack internet service altogether, and another 3,000 who reported some connectivity problem. Officials say they are negotiating with Comcast to obtain free internet for low-income families. (Comcast says it has offered free internet for 60 days to any new eligible customers since March 12, at an adequate speed for livestreaming, and has not negotiated individual deals with municipalities.)

Meanwhile, the district is distributing physical packets of work to students at drop-off sites. Students get their packet one week and turn it in the following week.

Rebecca Cusick, president of the Fall River Educators Association, the local teachers union, added that many local parents are essential workers, so even if a student gets a Chromebook, no one is home to help them use it. “There’s so much that’s out of our control that really frustrates educators,” Cusick said. She has heard from parents overwhelmed by the amount of work their children are getting and others who want more. “It’s really hard for us to know exactly what each family needs,” Cusick said.

A lack of technology is a statewide problem. At a recent legislative hearing, commissioner of elementary and secondary education Jeff Riley estimated that 9 percent of Massachusetts students do not have home internet, and 15 percent of students do not have access to their own electronic device.

Part of the problem is geographic. At the hearing, Kim Stevens, who lives in the rural Western Massachusetts town of Colrain, said she can only get satellite internet at her house, which is insufficient for her first and fourth grade children to watch videos, download assignments, or join live chats. “As a parent, it’s devasting to realize even with my best efforts I can’t make this happen with my kids,” Stevens said.

Colrain Central School principal Amy Looman, whose elementary school serves nine rural towns, said Colrain has no broadband internet and much of the town lacks cell service. A survey found 40 percent of homes in Colrain cannot video conference. Hotspots were installed in the school and library parking lots.  “Every day cars line up in parking lots with students trying to access class meetings, parents and other residents attempting to work remotely,” Looman said. One-quarter of the teachers must sit in parking lots to hold virtual meetings with students.

The lack of connectivity is also problematic in urban districts, due to money. Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, the parent organization of CommonWealth magazine, reported that nearly 30,000 families with a K-12-age child living in Gateway Cities do not have a computer at home. That includes nearly 40 percent of households in Lawrence, and more than one-third of households in Chelsea, Fall River, Holyoke, New Bedford, and Springfield.

School districts are trying to address the problem, but it takes creativity and money.

Everett, for example, already had several thousand Chromebooks but spent $400,000 to buy 2,000 more, according to School Committee member Frank Parker. The district in May set up a distribution site out of a large parking lot, and volunteers have offered to drop off devices at families’ homes.

In Lowell, the district has distributed 5,000 devices among 15,000 students, set up mobile hotspots and made arrangements with Comcast for poor families to get free internet access. It created mobile tech tents with information technology staff who set up at different schools and are available to troubleshoot technology problems. School officials have been distributing work packets in addition to web-based assignments, so students can complete their work online or take a picture of their packet or submit the packet to school.

In Holyoke, the district is also distributing devices, but school committee member Devin Sheehan said there is a waiting list, nearly nine weeks into the closure, since increased demand nationwide means it is harder to buy devices. Families are given one per family.

“When there’s a student that has three other siblings in Holyoke public schools, it’s difficult for them to create a schedule that works for them to all attend a live teaching session on the computer,” said Sheila Fallon, a ninth grade English teacher at Holyoke High School. In mid-May, Fallon said she just discovered that two of her students still needed Chromebooks to download assignments, so she planned to deliver them herself.

SHAKY CONNECTIONS

Beyond the issue of devices is the ability to engage students.

In the first week Forest Park Middle School in Springfield was closed, eighth grade English teacher Jennifer Belden tried calling all 85 of her students. She reached most of them, and gave the names of others to Springfield administrators to track down.

But there are the five to eight kids she cannot consistently reach. They might be spending time with a grandparent or friend while their parent is working. They might have switched phone numbers when they ran out of minutes.

Belden has resorted to networking. “I have one kid I can get ahold of consistently, they talk to three kids, I can relay messages to them, and you can often get through,” she said.

For Belden, around 20 to 30 percent of her students are regularly completing their work. Around 85 percent engage with their teachers. Among the difficulties: Some students are watching younger siblings while their parents work. Others took several weeks to get laptops from the school district.

Boots, in Malden, said one in five of her students lacks consistent internet service, a problem that is exacerbated as parents lose jobs and fail to pay the bill. Some students have taken on full-time jobs and are the sole breadwinners in their families.

“I keep thinking about the fact that it would be a traumatic experience for an adolescent,” Boots said. “Everything’s going great, you’re in your junior, senior year in high school. Then bam, you’re not going to have graduation, you’re not going to have a prom, but you are pulled out of everything you know and usually like and now you need to put your body on the line to work in a grocery store and support your entire family.”

The school is using a credit/no credit grading system, and about 60 to 70 percent of Boots’s students are turning in work. Boots worries whether students will retain their relationship with the school. “Will there be kids who after having worked for awhile said, I’m not going back?” she asked.

Methuen Superintendent Brandi Kwong said her district also has many parents who are essential workers, with students being cared for by older siblings or extended family. That makes it harder to check in with parents, and harder for older students to attend virtual classes during the day. After teachers realized this, the district required all new learning be done via recordings and videos so students can access it any time. “Having kids sit at a certain time logging into live sessions…that’s very difficult in our community,” Kwong said.

When students are not completing classwork, Kwong said teachers are required to reach out to them and find out if they need help. The district in early May began delivering 1,500 packages to students in kindergarten through second grade with activity packets and supplies like paper, crayons, pencils, and makeshift whiteboards with dry erase markers.

Students whose families don’t speak English can have even more trouble. In Lowell, the district employs five bilingual family liaisons who speak Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swahili, and Khmer. A school assignment website is translated into multiple languages. “We really have to be thoughtful and flexible around different circumstances impacting families,” said Lowell’s chief equity and engagement officer, Latifa Phillips.

Denise Hurst, a Springfield school committee member who works for a community college, knows how lucky her family is. Her husband, Justin Hurst, is a former educator and now the Springfield city council president. During the pandemic, the couple has been able to keep their two kids, 9 and 4, on track academically, and they also teach them about gardening, finance, health, and civics. They discuss mail-in ballots, since Denise Hurst is running for state representative, and learn about the parallels between coronavirus and the Spanish flu.

Their son Justin Hurst Jr., 9, spent three days researching Congressman Joe Kennedy and writing a speech, which he used to introduce the Senate hopeful at a Western Massachusetts-focused campaign event.

But Hurst also sees the situations of other Springfield residents. The district provided 17,000 laptops and distributes free meals. It sends children weekly class and assignment calendars in two languages. But despite these efforts, she worries about students’ social and emotional well-being.

“As someone with some level of resources and privilege, I acknowledge it’s very difficult wanting to make sure your kid doesn’t Zoom bomb your own meeting. The attention you give them is really compromised. It’s not the same attention a teacher gives a child day in and day out,” Hurst said. “When you have to figure out how to feed your kids when you lost your job because of this, or contracted the virus because you’re an essential worker….the last thing you’re thinking about is how do I turn on this computer and sit with my kid and do this work.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

This story was updated with information about Comcast’s service.