Outgoing State Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona has an online meeting in West Haven High School shortly after a press conference in July to urge districts to open for in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year. (CT Mirror) Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

The opportunity to see his crush is what drove one of Hilary McDevitt’s sixth grade students to log into the live online classes she began hosting after COVID-19 shuttered the elementary school she teaches at in Bridgeport.

“This is so silly, right? But this is the stuff the kids get up and go to school for in the morning.,” said McDevitt.

“He would make sure he was up and his hair brushed before that class meeting,” McDevitt was told by the child’s mother. “These meet-ups really mattered for the kids who were on. It’s very isolating to do everything just on your own. The synchronous instruction was the place where it felt like we were together, where you build community, and you can still find places to laugh.”

Children find motivation to show up for school from all different places; some come for gym or art class, others for science, and countless others to see their friends or teachers.

The pandemic has complicated that model.

With many expecting schools to close again this upcoming school year as the virus rages around the country, educators must figure out how to lure online the 137,000 children throughout Connecticut who either didn’t participate in remote learning at all or did so minimally after school buildings closed last March.

In Bridgeport, a full half of the student body didn’t show up regularly for remote schooling during the pandemic compared to 19% who were chronically absent before school buildings closed. It’s not just the urban districts facing this challenge. In nearby Newtown, where McDeVitt’s son was in eighth grade when schools closed, 14% of the students didn’t show up regularly for online school compared to 4% who regularly missed school prior to the pandemic.

There seems to be widespread agreement that even if students did participate fully in the remote learning offered, students fell behind where they would have been if classrooms stayed open – and students will fall even further behind if schools close this fall.

So what is the solution if schools must close?

Many agree that holding live classes online and hosting small group sessions is the next best option.

Alex Kendall, 16, left, and Sylis Williams, 17, walk down the stairs after sharing thoughts about reopening the school in the fall with Gov. Ned Lamont and Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona on July 24 at West Haven High School. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“It is critically important, in my personal opinion, for the social emotional connection to see the faces of your friends and your teacher. To hear the voice of your teacher, there’s a calming effect when you’re able to, in your mind, replicate the experience of the past,” Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said of live, synchronous classes. “I would argue that the majority of those benefits are social emotional, in addition to the instruction that the teacher is providing on a concept that a student might not be familiar with. It’s harder to understand a concept that you don’t have a teacher teaching.”

Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez agrees.

“We know that in learning there’s a social dynamic at play with learning. Learning happens best when there’s an interaction between the content, the students, the adult, the peers, and some of those clearly are missed in an asynchronous delivery,” she said. “It’s the power of that entire synergy that’s important in the learning process.”

Other education experts agree.

“All kids get so much more than just academic content from school. That emotional learning and connection is much richer through face to face contact. But if that’s not possible, being online in a virtual synchronous setting can provide some of that connection and really keep cultivating the relationship between the teacher and the students and among the students. It is really important,” said Morgean Donaldson, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education who studies teacher quality.

School is not just about giving kids work to do and having them complete it. You need a teacher on the other end that teaches them.”— Mara Rabinowitz

But live classes played a limited role in many districts last spring. A survey of superintendents conducted by the CT Mirror five weeks after schools closed showed that 15% of the districts that responded – 8 of the 54 – were not offering live classes at all. And in places where it was provided, the frequency varied widely from schools that offered only weekly 30 minute classes to daily lessons.

Mara Rabinowitz, whose oldest son attends elementary school in Fairfield and whose youngest son attends a special education school in Trumbull, has seen the difference live instruction plays.

“The expectations are high for my oldest. He has time slots, like 9:30 to 10:15, he has English class, then 10:15 to 11, he has math. He knows that he’ll be supported by those teachers at that time. For my younger son, he’s just sort of told, ‘you know, kind of just go on whenever you want,’” she said. “It’s night and day – and it’s really, really unfair. It’s really disappointing. School is not just about giving kids work to do and having them complete it. You need a teacher on the other end that teaches them.”

Mara Rabinowitz lives in Fairfield with her two boys, Jack, 8, (left) and Jordan, 10 (right.) Rabinowitz is a bilingual coach for the West Haven school system and is juggling the demands of teaching remotely from home and managing her boy’s distance learning while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she’s managing to do her job and keep her children focused. “There are a lot of families in West Haven who have it worse because it’s even more challenging to have four kids on one cell phone,” she said. “It’s more difficult than my job here.” Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

Numerous roadblocks stand in the way of every student in Connecticut getting live online learning, ranging from the difficulty of getting all 527,829 public school students their own computers and connected to the internet to getting the state’s 35,414 teachers and their unions to agree to provide regular live online instruction.

Federal funding is expected to make it a bit easier for districts to provide live instruction online. The governor plans to announce later today that he will spend $43 million of the federal COVID-19 funding it received to help close the so-called “digital divide” by purchasing 50,000 laptops and connecting 60,000 students to the internet.

While the State Department of Education does recommend that schools dedicate half of each school week to live online teaching, it leaves it entirely up to local officials to determine what will be offered if schools do close again.

On Monday, the State Department of Education and Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership released a 35-page report highlighting best practices for districts to follow when providing distance learning. Among the so-called “essential actions” is that districts “make clear the expectation that educators deliver and students attend synchronous 1:1, small group, and large group (whole class or school) instruction each day in all subject areas.”

The state associations representing teachers’ unions, school boards and superintendents all helped create the guidance.

“So you have some communities that are going to rise to the occasion and have a lot of live learning, and you have some that are going to be beholden to their collective bargaining agreements locally and they will do the bare minimum unless the state provides some requirements,” said Amy Dowell, the leader of the state chapter of Education Reform Now, an advocacy organization affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. “For the long haul students might be home, and I think it will really come down to town-by-town what type of remote school they get.”

Getting connected

Couryn Mendez-Barner, who is going into ninth grade in the fall, struggled some days to sign into her online classes because of a weak internet connection. When the number of those days began to mount, her mom purchased a printer so she could at least print out the worksheets her daughter’s teacher put online for all the students struggling to get connected.

“I’m afraid of what the next school year is going to look like,” said Chantel who was disappointed with the education her eighth grader received after school buildings closed in Bridgeport. She has teamed up with other parents and church leaders with the advocacy group Faith Acts to advocate for better remote learning, asking for every student in Connecticut to be provided with a computer, high-speed internet and more consistent and robust live instruction.

“We can’t have a repeat,” Chantel told a crowd rallying earlier this month outside Bridgeport City Hall.

Chantel Mendez gives a speech on July 13 at the Bridgeport City Hall. Mendez joined the demonstration with her daughter, Coryn Mendez-Barner, 14, and talked about struggles that she and her daughter had during the online classes. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

As the virus threatens to close schools again this fall, a crisis is brewing as officials scramble to get every student connected to their remote online classes.

Statewide, nearly 50,000 students – about one out of every 11 students – were in need of a computer or another device as of mid-May, a survey conducted by the State Department of Education found. And nearly 29,0000 students didn’t have internet access, it was too slow, or their smart phone or computer wasn’t compatible with the learning platform being used by their school.

In general, districts with a majority of white students report few issues with internet and device access.

State data show that while there have been significant investments to get students connected, there is still a long way to go with just 58% of middle schools and 71% of high schools providing every student with a computer. Weak internet connection also stands in the way of going online since 15% of Connecticut homes and 8% of residents under the age of 18 do not have a broadband connection, U.S. Census data show.

Low-income families are significantly less likely to have broadband access – 56% for those earning under $30,000 compared to 92% for those making over $75,000 – the non-partisan Pew Research Center reports. Closing this digital divide is critical since Connecticut has among the largest achievement gaps in the nation between students from low-income families and their classmates.

Hover for the names of the towns, and click to zoom.

Source: Federal Communication Commission, 2017 survey data tracks connections that are at least 10 Mbps downstream and at least 1 Mbps upstream. 4 of 833 Census Tracts do not have corresponding data. These connections are considered to be be good internet connections for the purposes of passive remote learning but might be inadequate for videoconferencing, according to Michael Mundrane, a member of the Connecticut Commission for Education Technology. Credit: Kasturi Pananjady

The state teamed up with billionaire Ray Dalio to provide high school students in high-poverty districts with a laptop, and on Monday Dalio’s wife, Barbara announced they will also be chipping in to get students connected to the internet.

Ninety percent in a lot of things is great, but if there’s 10% of our kids that don’t have the internet, that’s 2,000 kids that are not accessing the curriculum. That is a problem. It goes beyond the public school system to solve this problem.”— Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani

Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani said computers donated to his district means that nearly every student now has their own computer if schools do close again. But only 90% of his students have adequate internet access.

“Ninety percent in a lot of things is great, but if there’s 10% of our kids that don’t have the internet, that’s 2,000 kids that are not accessing the curriculum. That is a problem. It goes beyond the public school system to solve this problem,” Testani said.

There are also significant challenges with districts having the technological capacity to host live classes online.

In Rocky Hill, for example, in order to avoid overwhelming the servers, third grade teacher Pauolo Zocco was given two time slots a week to host live classes. Those meet-ups helped energize class discussions about the book the class was reading.

“The live sessions are probably my favorite part of distance learning because I could see my class and interact with them. I didn’t have to just type back and forth with them. It was nice to kind of rekindle our relationships, which I thought was very important,” he said.

Mississippi Department of Education

Getting teacher buy-in

In some districts teachers were expected to host live classes when schools shut, while in many others that decision was left to individual teachers.

If districts want to require more live classes, they will have to negotiate with the unions the impact that will have on teachers. To accommodate such a shift, the state’s largest teachers’ union has asked that the live sessions not be recorded – even for students who missed class to later watch – that they be provided with a computer and a $50 a month stipend to cover internet costs, and they not be evaluated on their online teaching.

“There are going to be obvious changes in working conditions, so there absolutely needs to be a discussion and a resolution of how those changes would take place,” said Donald Williams Jr., the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association.

Gov. Lamont, right, talks to from Gozde Yildiz, 16, far left, Yaritza Magana, 16, in a red shirt, and Briana Xolocotzi, 17, after a conversation about the fall semester on July 24 at West Haven High School. Xolocotzi said she looks forward to the school reopening in the fall. “It’s easier to learn face to face than learning online,” she said. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Some of the concerns being raised by teachers threaten to stand in the way of providing students regular live instruction.

“I think it’s something that is extremely doable. I think some of the adults need to remove some of the barriers because it’s outside of their comfort level. It is a scary thought for some educators,” said Testani, the superintendent from Bridgeport.

He said the pushback that he has heard about requiring live instruction surrounds having anyone other than just students listening in.

“There’s something about the classroom environment that teachers hold sacred. Some teachers want to close that door and that is their world and their domain. And except for the times that their supervisor … pops in to do an evaluation and observation, that is their domain,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have to be open to the idea that during these livestream classes, that parents may sit and observe. I think there’s a lot to be gained by having parents participate, because then they can go off and support their child when it comes to doing the assignments, doing the homework, doing the projects that are going to be assigned outside of the classroom. … I know it is scary for us to have people there critiquing every word, every move you make.”

Live classes need to be part of the school day, he said.

“I don’t think we can do what we did in the spring again in the fall. I don’t think that’s appropriate for our kids,” he said.

Leaving this to local officials and teachers’ unions to sort out could lead to problems, some worry, as different districts or schools move toward more robust remote learning and others fall behind.

“With enough lead time there could become a new set of expectations,” said Sarah Wolfin, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education who studies the relationship between education policy and equitable instruction.

Without statewide expectations, she worries, “There could become larger problems and larger inequities. And I think that some of these things could become contentious among teachers and principals and families as well. To hear that, in one school, this is the experience and a few miles over, teachers are not doing that.”

If districts are not able to sort out robust live classroom experiences online, everyone seems to agree there needs to be some plan to connect personally with students.

“There needs to be that connection and that relationship through the remote learning period – otherwise students will get lost,” said Donaldson.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting on the responses to social problems, through funding from The Barr Foundation, whose mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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1 Comment

  1. Given all that is going on in the world, I find it incredible that teachers are afraid to permit recordings of their classes and fear parents listening. What are they teaching that makes them fear parent awareness of their children’s’ learning?

    In the spring my kids had a lot of rote work on websites after a 15 minute chaotic group “check-in” – if the fall takes that direction, I will seriously consider homeschooling. The Connecticut Constitution guarantees education as a right. If the schools districts can’t provide it, perhaps they should pay the parents that home school.

    Jim Miller Lyme CT

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