March 13, 2020 is a date indelibly imprinted on the minds of educators across the country. Most were hearing and reading news stories about the increased transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Administrators were receiving by-the-minute reports regarding pending school closures and knew, firsthand, the immediate impact it would have on students. Since Fall 2019, administrators and teachers had experienced low student attendance due to lengthy bouts of illness. The grim possibility of the doors of community hubs, also known as schools, was upon us all. All we could grapple with was the thought of what would happen to our children. For many of us, we knew that our children and their families depended on not only a learning environment but also a loving place they called their second home; where they were provided with love, nurturing, deep relationships, camaraderie, resources, healthcare, food, and an overall sense of community.
When the doors of the schools closed on March 13, 2020, our children and their families were left to fend for themselves. COVID-19 exacerbated challenges we knew existed: low attendance, inequities, disparities in the process of teaching & learning, poor communication between families and schools, lack of trust in school communities, and student transience. The immediate response to maintain and increase engagement was to mobilize teams to conduct home visits, deploy technology, and open food pantries. School administrators and their teams worked daily to ensure students were able to access virtual learning, obtain food for their homes, and were connected to community resources to help with things like utility bills, healthcare, and childcare.
Concentric Educational Solutions was tasked with supporting school community efforts to engage families, connect school staff, and supply families with much needed information via home visits. The home visits we conducted resulted in qualitative data pertaining to the conditions our children experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our students who experienced high rates of transience or spent time at multiple homes were amongst the most disengaged in the virtual learning process. Additionally, parents who needed to continue working throughout the pandemic attempted to secure childcare. However, the childcare provider did not always have the resources or the ability to support students with virtual learning. Students with older siblings ended up becoming “latchkey children,” relegated to their homes and responsible for parenting while their parents were working. The separation from friends, teachers, administrators and looming fear of an invisible threat created quite a traumatic experience for students across the nation. There are many reports of increased rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
The virtual learning experience varied across school communities, as well. There were multiple definitions of what it meant to be marked present. For example, students who did not have their cameras on were marked absent. In other cases, students who were logged in with cameras on and did not participate were marked absent. When families experienced login issues or other technology-related barriers, they disengaged (almost permanently) when those issues weren’t addressed quickly. If the school community did not have staff on call to support technology issues, it led to further distrust of the system. As we conducted home visits, we discovered that at least 25% of student contact information (addresses and phone numbers) were inaccurate. As a result, many families were completely disconnected from the school for months at a time.
Although many school districts immediately worked to deploy technology, we found that the term, technology gap, meant something different everywhere. While it was initially assumed that homes were void of laptops and the internet, we discovered that the issues were more complex and challenging. For instance, there may have been only one device available per home, there was not enough internet bandwidth for the increase in internet usage, and some home environments posed a risk for the security of devices. Furthermore, there were usage limits on hotspots provided by school districts; the issue was not totally understood by families. The increased gaps in access to education caused further disengagement in the learning process. For a period of approximately 18 months, children did not participate in an effective educational process.
As the transmission rates lowered and many local educational agencies reopened their doors, students returned to school buildings, expected to return to normal. What we didn’t realize is that our former sense of normalcy no longer exists. We had first graders who attempted to grasp phonics in Pre-K and Kindergarten over a virtual platform now in classrooms attempting to decode grade-level books. Middle school students who were last in elementary school and had difficulty adjusting to so many classes. High school students who entered massively large school communities and spent their entire freshman year online. It was and still is a great adjustment for our students, families, and school communities. It is highly evident that it’s going to take innovative practices, creativity, communication, and hard work to create a new sense of normalcy for our students. As a partner in the educational process, Concentric Educational Solutions is here to support, our students need us all to work together to create conditions conducive to success.
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