Learning curve

Students, teachers and parents are struggling to adapt to the “new normal” in education. Kiwanians can help.

By Julie Saetre

When Information Technology High School in Long Island City, New York, abruptly closed classroom doors in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its 1,005 students and 90 teachers, administrators and staff became part of a brave new digital world overnight.

Luna Ramirez, left,  who has been a teacher for 23 years, with 13 of those spent in New York public schools, was among them. As a career and technology instructor, she was more prepared than many to meet the challenge. And so were her students — academically, at least. In their high school, they study complex subjects: digital design, computer programming, website development and career and financial management. Many of them are advanced-placement students.

But their day-to-day lives provide as many learning challenges as their studies offer opportunities. Some live in small apartments shared by multiple family members. Laptop computers, if available at all, are old with limited memory, and one is often shared among parents and siblings. 

And those are the families fortunate enough to have internet access in the first place. 

The “digital divide” — the gap between those who have access to the internet, personal computers and other forms of information and communications technology and those who don’t — presented a formidable obstacle to education equality before the pandemic. The sudden switch to remote learning sent the situation into overdrive.

In Detroit, Michigan, for example, only 10% of public school students had access to both a computer and the internet when schools closed in March, as reported by NBC’s Today Show. The Pew Research Center reports that across the United States, some 15% of homes with school-age children lack internet access. Some families take a harder hit. A 2019 report by the National Center for Education Statistics states that nearly 20% of African American children ages 3-18 — and 21% of families earning less than US$40,000 per year — have no home internet access.

“There’s a saying that in the U.S. we have ‘10,000 democracies,’ since school districts are largely autonomous organizations that operate independently,” says Titilayo Tinuba Ali, left, director of research and policy for the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance equitable education policies and practices for low-income students and students of color in 17 southern states.

“In the South, more students of color attend public schools than do white students, and a higher percentage of students in nearly every southern state qualifies for free or reduced -price lunch. Research shows that students in high-poverty schools need additional resources to meet similar grade-level academic outcomes. Despite this fact, Southern states spend, on average, $1,200 less per pupil than the national average. With expected declining tax revenues following the COVID-19 crisis, states will have fewer overall dollars to target resources to low-income districts, widening opportunity and achievement gaps for students. While COVID-19 is impacting all of our students, those who are low-income or need extra supports are suffering the most.”

It’s not just a North American problem. No matter where in the world children live, those on the wrong side of the digital divide are most likely to suffer the consequences from school closures, says Borhene Chakroun, right, director of the division of policies and lifelong learning systems for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The pandemic has forced school closures in 191 countries, affecting a staggering 1.5 billion students. And half of those learners — nearly 830 million — don’t have access to a household computer. Forty-three percent lack home internet access.

UNESCO reports that in Europe, 14% of households do not have access to the internet, and 22% lack a computer. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of students have no access to computers, and 82% have no way to get online.

The “digital divide” — the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t — already presented a formidable obstacle to education equality before the pandemic. The sudden switch to remote learning sent the situation into overdrive. 

Then there are the students who already had barriers to education — from poverty and geographical remoteness to disabilities, displacement and exposure to child labor, violence and other adverse conditions. 

“Education is vital to development, both at the individual and collective level,” Chakroun says. “Yet about 258 million children and youth were already out of school before the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, millions of students, those already in school, may face the immediate risk of dropping out or graduating without the basic skills. This existing learning crisis is exacerbated by COVID-19-related school closures, widening learning gaps and feeding wider socioeconomic inequalities.

Remote learning isn’t just a challenge for students. Among teachers who have the technology they need, not all feel equally comfortable using it. Larry Lieberman, left, is CEO of Mouse, a New York-based nonprofit that develops online computer science and STEM curriculum for students — and offers professional development on those subjects to teachers. When the pandemic hit, Mouse responded by expanding its teacher offerings to include four levels of instruction about Google Classroom and other online remote learning tools. The organization trained more than 4,000 New York City teachers in just a few weeks.

“Early on, it was obvious that there were students without devices or connectivity in their homes who would not be able to learn without them. That’s a very tangible, easy-to-see gap,” Lieberman says. “Well, the same gap exists when the teacher is not prepared to convert their expertise in the classroom into a remote environment. The most wonderful classroom teachers who have changed lives and inspired young people aren’t always best equipped to convert on a moment’s notice to a whole new media.”

Honing technical skills is only the beginning, adds Ali.

“This may include developing online facilitation skills, learning how to structure teamwork and project-based learning online. In addition to teachers, support staff such as guidance counselors and social workers also need support to learn how to effectively use technology to deliver services to students.”

Parents haven’t escaped transition trauma either. Those fortunate enough to work at home must juggle job responsibilities with the newfound task of being a teaching assistant. Eric Oldfield, right, is chief business officer for Brainly, a remote-learning support platform where middle and high school students struggling with a homework question can ask for help from a network of volunteer teachers, parents and peers. Since the pandemic hit, demand for the site has increased 200% in the U.S. alone, just one of the 35 countries Brainly serves. And it’s not just students asking for help.

“When kids are at school, their teachers are there all the time, and if they have a problem, they can ask them,” Oldfield says. “But with remote learning, the surface area of the teacher has been significantly reduced. Even in the best scenarios and school districts, where every student has a Chromebook (laptop), the teacher’s surface area has been reduced by more than 50%. And who’s there to help (the students)? It’s their parents.

“But I think what parents find, once you get past fifth grade, unless you’re a teacher yourself, it’s very hard to help your kids. ‘Cause you’ve forgotten the majority of what you learned, or, if you remember how to do it, chances are they’re teaching it differently today than you learned it. And so the effect that we’ve seen is just a massive surge in usage.”

The pandemic has forced school closures
in 191 countries, affecting a staggering 1.5 billion students. And half of those learners — nearly 830 million — don’t have access to a household computer. Forty-three percent lack home internet access.

And while parents have to learn to use Zoom and other forms of video conferencing, their children need that same support. That means mom or dad takes on the additional role of information technology specialist. It’s something Oldfield, a father of two, knows well.

“This morning, I had a conference call, and in the middle of the conference call, my daughter came in and said, ‘Hey, Zoom doesn’t work.’ There was an update, and we had to update their computers and figure out what the administrator password was. And so I took off my Brainly chief business officer hat and put on my Oldfield family chief technology officer hat. And that’s challenging.”

Parents who can’t work remotely, single parents, parents of children with special needs, non-English-speaking parents and others suddenly find themselves without the resources they’ve had previously.

“One of the striking shifts is that caregivers of students with special needs have to now deal with distance from their support networks of health aides, therapists and coaches,” explains the Southern Education Foundation’s Ali.

Altogether, the challenges faced by educators, students and parents are daunting. In the short term, while the world waits for a COVID-19 cure and vaccine, remote learning will continue to play a dominant role in education as schools grapple with keeping kids safe. New York public school teacher Ramirez said her city, like many others, is looking at limiting the number of students per classroom, which presents a whole new set of problems.

“The city (already) has over-crowded classrooms everywhere. So some kind of remote learning is going to be happening in the fall.”

And even if a cure for COVID-19 burst onto the scene, experts point out, tech-based teaching and learning models were around before the disease and will be here in the pandemic’s aftermath.

“While the scale of distance learning in this instance is unprecedented,” says Ali, “the concept of distance learning is not new, as there are state, district, charter and private virtual schools across the country that offer all their learning through virtual platforms. In other cases, some schools have utilized distance learning to allow for course recovery or an opportunity to participate in courses that would not be available otherwise.”

Kiwanians shouldn’t be daunted by the scope of the need. Wherever your club is located, you will find kids, parents and teachers who need your help.

Mouse’s Lieberman says we can use this trial-by-fire period to address the inequities unveiled by remote learning.

“I certainly hope that we will use the things we are positively learning this year to modify and enhance education for years and years to come,” he says. “It’s never been possible for every student to be in class every day. But we have this opportunity now to help students learn where they are and make sure teachers are trained and prepared to help their students learn, wherever that student is based.”

And that’s where Kiwanians come in. Club members’ opportunity is in a concept that Brainly’s Oldfield calls digital citizenship.

“Digital citizenship is not just about learning how to use the technology and getting a better education, but using the technology as a platform to give back,” he explains. “Our platform really encourages not just the diligence to be a good student, but to be a good digital citizen and help others. And today, the number of people who need help with their education is bigger than it’s ever been.”

Kiwanians shouldn’t be daunted by the sheer scope of the need. In fact, the numbers show that wherever your club is located, you will find kids, parents and teachers who need your help.

In April 2020, the Southern Education Foundation released a brief, “Distance Learning During COVID-19: 7 Equity Considerations for Schools and Districts,” highlighting initial areas to address: reaching students who don’t have internet access; helping students gain that access and other necessary technology; supporting English-language learners and students with special needs; identifying and providing needed wraparound services; supporting teachers; addressing mental health needs of students and teachers; and supporting parents’ roles in distance learning.

No community is the same, so before you set out to tackle all seven considerations, find out exactly where your club’s commitment is needed.

“For some communities, materials and Wi-Fi access are the main issues,” advises Ali, “and for others, digital literacy is a challenge, where teachers and families may need volunteers to help them navigate tech challenges through a hotline. Consider doing a community survey or assessment to see what’s needed and how you can be supportive.”

Once you know your service goals, use these tips to meet them.

Reaching those without internet access. While most Kiwanians can’t commit to wiring residences, they still can bring the internet (and its access to knowledge) within reach. 

“We have seen districts implementing some creative partnerships with community organizations and shelters to help meet the needs of these students,” Ali says. “We’ve seen solutions like partnerships with local print shops to provide printed materials to students without internet access and deploying vans or buses equipped with Wi-Fi to get students connected, and community centers themselves can serve as Wi-Fi hubs.”

Another option: lower-tech formats. Before the internet existed, for example, children learned via educational television programming.

“UNESCO has been organizing a series of webinars on radio/TV-mediated distance education, which showcased examples and good practices of using the radio and television to reach out to those who did not have access to internet,” says Chakroun.

Check with your school system, your city’s public access television station or the local Public Broadcasting System channel to see if volunteers are needed to support educational programming on- or off-air.

Helping with hands-on tech. Kiwanis clubs around the world already have stepped up with donations of tablets and laptops to schools and students in need. Because technology never stands still, even if your district distributed technology a few years ago, it could be outdated for today’s lessons. And what works for younger students might not be functional for older learners. Find out if it’s time for an update. In Ramirez’s school, students received iPads — which only stymied the tech students.

“iPads are great for elementary school, maybe middle school,” Ramirez explains. “But when you get to high school, you cannot type a whole essay on an iPad. There are things that you need to do on a computer. In my case, you need to be able to run FTP servers, you need to be able to have the latest Java support in the browsers, Adobe. So the computer needs to have enough memory to run the program. The school already paid for full licensing for my students to have the software, but they could not run it in the computers, because it was too slow.”

Supporting special needs. Helping children with autism, those with special needs and English language learners often comes down to being there for their parents or guardians. 

“The first step is acknowledging these different challenges and truly seeing and considering parents and families of all types,” advises Ali. “Then look to support parents and caregivers in your community in the ways they most need. That may look like serving as volunteer tutors where there are work, time or other structural barriers to parents and family members being able to assist with lessons. Additionally, families who do not speak English at home may appreciate support from volunteers who could serve as interpreters or translators.”

Making wraparound services available. At least 45% of Ramirez’s students rely on the food they receive at school to feed their families. So those food drives that Kiwanis family members have been holding since the pandemic began will continue to be key. Children and families who needed food, clothing, toiletries and other basics before COVID-19 will still have those needs. And with pandemic-related job losses, those essential items are even more in demand. 

“The most wonderful classroom teachers who have changed lives and inspired young people aren’t always best equipped to convert on a moment’s notice to a whole new media.”

Lending a helping hand to teachers. “With the pandemic, there are three front lines,” says Mouse’s Lieberman. “There’s the health crisis. And then the second, of course, is the financial hardship. And those two crises are so severe that the third front line can get lost, and that’s the crisis in education. Kids don’t stop. Kids don’t stand still. And our teachers have committed themselves to carrying on in a climate that no one could have imagined.”

A typical distance-learning day for Ramirez begins at 7 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t end until 10 or 11 p.m. Distance learning requires not only time for learning new tech, but leading virtual group classes, meeting remotely with students for one-on-one problem-solving, coaching kids for exam prep and more.

One student in Ramirez’s class had to deal with every family member contracting COVID-19; two senior students each lost a parent to the disease. Ramirez worked with the teens to create a modified learning schedule and special projects that allowed them to continue their education when the pandemic made daily classwork and homework impossible.

“I have my regular assignments, but for the students who have trouble because of the family’s health or a death in the family or they don’t have money to eat, I say, ‘There are too many assignments for you to do right now. But if you are capable of doing this project, then you get full credit.’ And they feel hope.”

You can help ease a teacher’s workload virtually by mentoring, tutoring a student in need or offering to be a guest speaker during a remote class meeting.

“My father was a Kiwanian,” Lieberman says. “There have always been these wonderful opportunities between the organization and schools to provide teachers and students with insight into the working world. That sort of immersion in connectivity is really critical.”

Kiwanis, CKI and Key Club members can ease the burden by tutoring, shopping for groceries, running errands, doing yard work and other forms of service that allow parents to focus on their family and work responsibilities.

Addressing emotional needs. “Students and teachers alike may be dealing with feelings of isolation, increased responsibility of caring for family members, changes in family income, death and other challenges,” says Ali. “Holding virtual wellness days for teachers with activities like yoga, mindfulness and support circles and making virtual guidance counselors or community mentors available are all ways to serve your community. Expanded learning, after-school and summer programs also give a real opportunity to work as allies with schools and provide some continuity with social and emotional support.”

Being there for parents. Just as teachers can use virtual volunteers, parents also face overwhelming demands. Kiwanis, CKI and Key Club members can ease the burden by tutoring, shopping for groceries, running errands, doing yard work and other forms of service that allow parents to focus on their family and work responsibilities. 

Bridging the digital divide won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But it will cultivate a new world of unprecedented educational opportunities.

“There are lots of negatives that come from this pandemic,” says Brainly’s Oldfield. “Adopting technology has become a necessity, not an option. As painful as it may be for all three parties — parents, teachers and students — I think that that is going to be a very positive thing. 

“We need to get technology into the classroom. We need to get technology into students’ hands. And I feel like one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it will hopefully accelerate that and improve the quality of education that students get globally.”

This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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