Every elementary school student in Glastonbury was sent home with an iPad on the day Connecticut’s governor declared a “public health emergency” to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. On it were all the learning platforms students would need to resume learning online. Students without internet access at home were provided a connection by the district.
“Glastonbury Public Schools is well positioned to provide a successful experience for our students,” Alan B. Bookman, the district’s superintendent, wrote parents the afternoon of March 10.
A few days later – as COVID-19 spread like brushfire throughout the region and school buildings shut down indefinitely – classes for this suburban town’s nearly 6,000 students went virtual.
That morning, Molly Willsey’s first graders logged onto their iPads just after 9 a.m. and started their school day. They started with writing exercises like practicing lower- and upper-case Gs, followed by math (having students count shamrocks), and then settled in to watch a video of her reading a Junie B. Jones book. She had students take pictures of their work along the way and shared it. Ms. Willsey graded it within minutes.
In one of Connecticut’s poorest cities, however, the transition hasn’t been nearly as seamless. In Bridgeport, where one out of every 26 public school students in the state attend school, some children were sent home with with worksheets and assignments, but this was an effort by individual teachers and not a coordinated approach by the district.
Many of Bridgeport’s students went home empty-handed.
“It should not be viewed as, ‘Oh, you gave them paperwork. That’s all you gave them.’ It’s like, ‘No that’s all that we had,'” said Ryan Brown, a seventh grade math teacher at the district’s Read School. “I don’t think it’s ever crossed the minds of anyone to say, ‘You know, let’s give all the kids in Bridgeport a Chromebook that they can use at home.’ We should have made sure that everybody had access to everything way before this happened, and then we wouldn’t really have too much of a problem right now.”
Brown’s students are able to use the school’s 7-year old Chromebooks during class unless they are already being used by another teacher, but even then, the computers don’t work very well. Some have broken keys, others have a slow internet connection, and a remote mouse is required on a handful.
“They’re functional, like we make them work type-of-thing. But we can’t send them home with students,” Brown said.
This digital divide between one of the state’s wealthier towns and poorest cities – and differences in distance learning for students during the prolonged school closure – will surely deepen the yawning disparities in educational outcomes between students from low-income families and their classmates.
“The achievement gap is going to worsen – not get better,” warned Donald E. Williams Jr., the executive director of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association.
Parents also play a role in deepening this gap, as some are more available to help home-school their children while schools are closed for weeks. For example, the father of one of Ms. Willsey’s first graders, Tim Jordan, works from home and was able to spend time getting his children set up. Brown said many of the parents of his students are in survival mode and have cobbled together child care so they can still work.
“How do we make sure that during this sort of alternate reality, this alternate schooling format, that we don’t have a case of the haves- and have-nots, in which certain parents devote themselves to almost like the overkill Olympics of Homeschooling – Gold Medal Homeschooling – and end up exacerbating opportunity gaps?” asked Sarah Woulfin, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education who studies the relationship between education policy and equitable instruction.
The achievement gap is a problem particularly relevant in Connecticut.
In reading, the state has the largest achievement gap in the nation between its fourth grade students from low-income families and their classmates. It has the second largest gap in math. Gaps between minority students and their white classmates are also among the worst in the nation. The gaps have not narrowed in years.
Compared to students from low-income families from other states, Connecticut’s poor students don’t fare well in reading or math, either.
The state’s role
School buildings may be closed indefinitely, but school should still be still in session. Districts were told by the state education department that they are expected to figure out a way to continue educating their students during the closure.
“I want to share, the school year is not cancelled. Some have asked questions whether or not the school year is called off. It’s not. We hope to welcome students back, but at this point we’re taking precautions and if we have to extend class cancellations, we will,” State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said during a late afternoon press conference with the governor Wednesday.
State law requires that school districts open their doors for 180 days and provide 900 hours of instruction, but Gov. Ned Lamont overrode that law by signing an executive order a few days after he declared the public health emergency.
There was a big caveat at the time: districts would have to make up the missed days by adding additional days to the end of the scheduled school year until they reach June 30, and then schools could close for the summer. District leaders could apply to the State Department of Education with a proposed “distance learning” plan to resume instruction while the school buildings are closed so the days wouldn’t need to be made up.
“With the governor having agreed to waive the 180- day requirement through his executive order there is a little less pressure on the districts regarding the distance learning right now,” Mark J. Sommaruga, an attorney at Pullman & Comley who represents numerous school boards across the state said last Friday. That’s because not resuming instruction through distance learning means only having to add a dozen or so days at the end of the year.
“At this point, I’m not under any mandate from my district. I’m doing this because I am a dedicated teacher who doesn’t want to see my kids getting behind.”
In Bridgeport, school leaders were silent on whether they would add nine days to the end of the year or implement distance learning. Requests for comment from the superintendent were not returned.
“I am literally weeping for our children’s future,” said Joseph Sokolovic, a member of the Bridgeport Board of Education. “I am becoming increasingly concerned about a long term closure and the effect it will have on our students falling further and further behind their suburban peers. … Many of our surrounding suburbs are able to implement “distance learning”, get private tutors, and other options to minimize the impact on their children’s education.”
Teachers in Hartford, where one-in-28 of the state’s students attend school, also haven’t been told if there is a plan. Social studies teacher Carol Gale sent her students home with some assignments and is posting grades and work on Google Classroom, which students already use for her class. But her freshman and sophomores haven’t been given computers, and will have to figure out access on their own.
“At this point, I’m not under any mandate from my district. I’m doing this because I am a dedicated teacher who doesn’t want to see my kids getting behind. Obviously, if a student is having technical difficulties of any sort, I can’t hold them responsible for these assignments,” she said. “I’m not receiving any directives yet from the district about what is being considered for distance learning.”
By the end of the last week, as the full extent of the crisis became more evident, 17 public school districts, including Glastonbury, had applied to resume educating students from a distance – nearly all of them better-off communities.
“They’re not going to have to stay in school any longer for the summer. So they think it’s awesome,” Jordan said of his two daughters.
Other well-off communities were gearing up to launch their own robust programs. The school boards for Darien and Regional District 18 – which includes Lyme and Old Lyme – each held emergency meetings Monday to strategize the launch of their distance learning programs.
“With a slogan like ‘A private school in a public school setting,’ we have certain expectations,” said Suzanne Thompson, a Region 18 board of education member. “Our families expect us to be like these private schools that already have distance learning in place.”
Concerned with the lack of access many students would have to remote learning – including those from poor families, English language learners, and those with disabilities – the state department initially discouraged districts from offering such programming.
But the state’s position changed Monday when it became clear that students will need to be out of school much longer than two weeks.
“We’re going to make sure that education doesn’t stop,” Cardona said Sunday during a press conference during which the governor announced he was closing all schools that planned to remain open. “Some districts now have tremendous programs for distance learning. Other districts don’t. So we really want to work hard to fill that gap.”
The CDC reported late last week that data shows short-term school closures have a minimal effect on containing the virus, but long-term closures can be effective.
“Available modeling data indicate that early, short to medium closures do not impact the [spike] of COVID-19 or available health care measures (e.g., hospitalizations),” according to guidance issued by the CDC last week. “There may be some impact of much longer closures (8 weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modeling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., hand washing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures.”
Several hours later, school superintendents were informed by the commissioner they would now be required to provide coursework outside of school.
“Districts should engage immediately in providing continuity of educational opportunities for students and may end the school year at their regularly scheduled end date,” Cardona wrote superintendents.
The state education department is not requiring districts to submit their plans for review.
Shortly after being notified by the state of the requirement, Bridgeport sent parents notice of the “independent learning” booklets that their children would need to pick up from school or download online to complete and bring with them when school opens again.
“While at home on these days, students are asked to engage in independent learning,” the letter from Superintendent Michael J. Testani reads.
It’s unclear just how many districts in Connecticut are capable of providing remote learning. A nationally representative survey completed by Education Week Research Center of 1,165 principals, superintendents and other district leaders found a huge “digital divide” between some districts. Educators from more than half of districts where the majority of the students are low-income said they could not provide those learning opportunities for even one day, compared to 31% of the districts that have fewer than a quarter of the students from poor families.
“America’s students will receive vastly different educational experiences over the next few weeks or months, especially if schools remain closed,” concluded Education Week, a national publication.
In Connecticut, some districts have conducted technology surveys of their students to understand who need extra support to transition learning online. The major challenge for families in the state’s struggling districts seems be access to the computers or other devices capable of hosting e-learning platforms, not internet access. The state’s primary internet carriers have all provided free access for low-income residents during this emergency.
If families in these districts do make it online, the State Department of Education has compiled a long list of programs for them to use. A spokesman said the department believes all of these programs adhere to student data privacy laws.
Some districts might also run into challenges asking teachers to work remotely, and negotiating the conditions of this work with the teachers’ unions.
“It’s difficult. I mean, most contracts do not envision a global pandemic,” said attorney Sommaruga. “A couple of the unions have been cooperatives Another one has been not as – I’ve choosing my words carefully – I mean, look, they’ve raised more issues.”
Asked whether districts will need to negotiate the roll-out of remote learning, the leader of the state’s largest teachers union said it depends.
“That remains to be seen. It depends on how far afield some of this may get, but teachers are part of a process that’s ongoing right now in most schools around the state to, at a minimum, provide supplemental and enriching materials for students,” said Williams.
Students had just finished lunch at the Read School in Bridgeport last week when news came that the district was closing, effective at the close of school the next day.
In Brown’s seventh grade math class, most students were excited about the break from school. But others were concerned about their grades.
“Students really do surprise you,” Brown said. “I did have quite a few students come up to me and ask me for work,” he said. “I think that the steps that we’re taking to make sure that the virus is contained are steps that are necessary, but then they’re going to be at a severe disadvantage when the next year rolls around.”
Research shows that online learning works best for self-motivated children.
“There’s a lot of literature on self-regulation being important in online learning. So it requires kids to get online, to be in quiet areas where the Bluetooth works, and that we’re not disturbing others…,” said Michael F. Young, a professor a UConn’s Neag School of Education who researches the effects of instructional technology. “The younger the children are, the less you can even expect them to self-regulate and it’s up to the parents to kind of structure the time.”
There was a bit of a learning curve for Jordan’s first grade daughter taking courses online — namely, getting her to stop turning to him for all the answers.
“I’m like, ‘Come on, you do this stuff all the time. I don’t know what you’re doing, you know the answer.’ So after a little bit of that, it was alright. But yeah, teachers definitely earn their wages,” the Glastonbury father said during an interview Monday night, the first day of so-called distance learning for his two daughters. “It’s going to be amazing how soon some of these things that we’re doing right now become routine in the coming weeks. So I’m pretty sure that my first grader is going to be adjusted by tomorrow, I bet.”
But remote teaching also has the potential to help draw in students who are otherwise disengaged, said Young. “This allows for personalized learning in a very different way than a school building and a whole group class instruction can,” he said.
But some districts like Bridgeport aren’t equipped for that robust programming, and even then the value of having teachers instruct students in class is preferred for many.
“That is never a substitute for in-class learning,” said Williams, the leader of the state’s teachers union. “There’s a world of difference between getting things through email or online and actually having some dialogue — some give and take with that person who is the expert in that field, and that’s what teachers are for education. … There’s a danger of believing that all students will get an equal education through distance learning. Those students who need the extra assistance, who need the inspiration and the guidance of a teacher in a classroom are going to be at the greatest disadvantage through distance learning.”
But, schools are closed, so school boards are gearing up to go online.
“Look, we’re trying to do the least bad option and the distance learning option may be the best we can go with,” said attorney Sommaruga. ““We’re trying to be creative here. It’s a case-by-case basis whether people want to buy into it.”