ALHAMBRA, Calif .– It’s Tuesday morning, and teacher Tamya Daly has her class online playing an alphabet game. Students write quickly and attentively, with occasional cries of excitement, on the little whiteboards that she left at their homes the night before along with coloring books, markers, silly putty and other learning aids – all that she created or paid for with her own money.
Two of the seven children in her combined third and fifth grade were not at home when Daly arrived with the gift bags. One of the two managed to find his own writing tablet, thanks to an older brother, but the other cannot find a piece of paper in his father’s house. She sits quietly watching her classmates on Zoom for half an hour as Daly unsuccessfully tries to get the father’s attention. Perhaps the student is wearing headphones; maybe the father is out of the room.
As children return to online school in California and much of the country, some of the disparities plaguing education are growing. Instead of attending the same school with similar access to teachers’ supplies and time, kids are directly dependent on their household resources, from Wi-Fi and computers to study space and parenting advice. Parents who work, who are poor or have less education are at a disadvantage, as are their children.
Daly teaches elementary school students with special needs. Children in her class, who have various diagnoses and intellectual disabilities, are at even higher risk: they cannot work independently and need more practical instruction. “The more they don’t get that kind of accommodation, the more they’re going to fall behind,” said Allison Gandhi, director general of special education at the nonprofit US research institutes.
Educators and families fear devastating long-term consequences of COVID-19 for almost 800,000 Californian children who received special education services. So, in early August, the state announced it was developing a waiver request process for schools, even in counties affected by COVID, that wish to bring back small groups of these students for in-person education.
“There are just kids who will never, ever get that quality learning that we all want to advance online, no matter what kind of support we provide, even if we individualize it,” said the Governor Gavin Newsom at a press conference on August 14. .
Online learning interferes with Individualized Student Education Programs, or IEPs – legal agreements between families, school districts, and specialists that set academic and behavioral goals for students and the services to which they are entitled.
The gap in the online learning experience is clearly visible in Daly’s classroom, and the role of parents is crucial. For parents who don’t have to work, distance learning can be strained and time consuming, but it is part of a daily routine to endure until the pandemic subsides. For others, schooling is an unachievable nightmare hanging over parents who are already pushed to the limit.
School started on August 12. By day five, Daly knew which kids had the luxury of a stay-at-home parent and which were supervised by older siblings. She knew which students were struggling to get online on time every day – a new state requirement for all virtual learners – and which ones needed to remember to eat breakfast before class started.
She also knew, since last spring, that most parents couldn’t print the worksheets she uploaded to Google Classroom. Their printers were broken, or printer ink was too expensive, or they didn’t have printers. For this semester, she has set up an hour every Thursday for parents to walk past the school and pick up the packages for the following week.
Daly works at Emery Park Elementary School in Alhambra, east of downtown Los Angeles, where two thirds of students qualified last year for free or reduced school meals. The school loaned about 80% of the 434 students’ Chromebooks because they didn’t have computers at home, principal Jeremy Infranca said.
Like most schools in California, Emery Park began the school year in virtual classrooms – the safest option for a state with a stubbornly persistent infection rate. The Alhambra school district has yet to decide whether to request a waiver to bring students with special needs back to campus. Infranca and Daly would love – if they can get COVID-19 protective gear for themselves and their students, and if families are comfortable with it.
Tamya Daly greets Jacob and his mother, Cat, at their doorstep with supplies for Jacob’s first week of school. Anna almendrala
In the meantime, Daly is doing his best to accommodate his families, which is not easy. Parents told her to limit live group lessons to one hour per day, so as not to interfere with the babysitting schedules or laptop needs of other children in the household. To make up for the reduced time, Daly records several 15- to 30-minute videos explaining the work to be done and plans to schedule an individual session with each child once a week.
“I choose to be positive about this experience, and I choose to communicate and do my best to reach out to students and connect with parents and family members,” said Daly. “We just have to be proactive, and also a little bit patient.”
Families have different opinions about their children’s return to school. It often depends more on a family’s desperation over childcare than on considering the risks of COVID-19.
Cat Lee, 44, was nervous at first when she realized she had to do most of the hands-on teaching for her son, Jacob, a fifth-grader in Daly’s class.
“I wondered if I would be able to teach him too, and would he be able to learn it?” ” she said.
Lee is a stay-at-home mom and so far she has been able to meet the schedule set by Daly. She’s there with Jacob every Zoom session and logs into the Seesaw app to complete all tasks. She praised Daly on her program, which she considered better and easier to teach than what the family received in March. But she had reservations about her son’s new normal.
“It really slows down his learning; plus he doesn’t interact with kids anymore,” Lee said.
Still, if she had the chance to send Jacob for an in-person apprenticeship now, Lee wouldn’t take it. She is concerned about their immune system – Lee had a kidney transplant five years ago and Jacob was born just 27 weeks gestation – and is waiting for a COVID vaccine before allowing Jacob to resume normal activities.
Not that she doesn’t have any doubts.
“I am afraid that he will be home for so long, that he is so used to it and that he does not want to go back to school,” she said.
Danielle Musquiz, a 32-year-old mother with five elementary-school-aged boys – four adopted from a parent – is said to be in favor of a return to school. She sleeps three or four hours each night due to her 90-hour work week with two jobs, as a home helper and cashier in a regional park.
Four of her sons receive special education services, including an adopted middle child who is in Daly’s class with cognitive delays related to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The children, crammed together at the dining room table or in the living room, listen to their lessons with headphones so as not to disturb themselves, so that she does not hear a teacher calling her from the screen.
All four children have individual education programs, but it is difficult for Musquiz to supervise them “with the minimum amount of time I have at home,” she said. She feels overwhelmed at having to coordinate, supervise and respond to teachers, counselors and therapists for each child.
Musquiz is working more hours than before the pandemic, and she’s taking shifts at the park when the boys’ former stepfather takes them out for the weekend.
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“I’m slowly starting to say – and I know that sounds bad – I don’t care about the children’s schooling anymore,” Musquiz laughed nervously. “I feel like it’s chaos, and I’m drowning.”
To help with childcare, her mother lives with the family Monday through Thursday and her sons spend Thursday evenings with her sister. On Fridays, nine children broadcast all their lessons online from this house. On a recent Friday, the Wi-Fi went down, prompting a call from the school about one of his sons, asking him why he left class earlier.
If given the chance, Musquiz would refer her kids to in-person learning in the blink of an eye.
“None of my kids are really going to learn what they need,” Musquiz said. “They need practice, they need interaction, they need motivation, and these classes don’t do it for them.”