When schools shut down last month, Metro teachers say they were essentially told not to teach, so that kids without access to technology wouldn’t get left further behind. Now, with just weeks left in the school year, the district is changing course.
It’s asking public school teachers to produce daily online learning activities, but they still face big challenges in reaching their students.
The situation has been different at charter schools. According to Nyanani Kwanyang, for the past month her two sons have been busy.
“They’re getting homework every day and the teacher calls to check on them,” says Kwanyang.
Kwanyang also has a daughter, who goes to public school, Glenview Elementary School, off Murfreesboro Pike. The third-grader received suggested videos and reading materials, but didn’t receive her first homework assignment until this week. And until one of Kwanyang’s sons got a Chromebook from his charter school, the kids were taking shifts on the family’s single computer, which has no sound.
“If it’s a worksheet they’re doing, it’s OK,” Kwanyang says. “But if it’s somebody talking to them, they cannot hear it.”
One in five American schoolkids has no computer or internet at home, experts say, and many have spotty access to technology. The so-called digital divide is a cornerstone of education inequity. And it’s why the district initially told its public school teachers not to offer any new instruction, or feedback — just subject review.
Paper packets of academic materials have been provided at some meal distribution sites, but Kwanyang says those aren’t easy to access either. She picked one up last week, she says, but not this week, because she was at work during the distribution time.
So Metro students have been receiving piecemeal support, from teachers working hard to create content on various apps and platforms — or even just contact kids. At severely understaffed schools, some teachers serve hundreds of students. Many educators are frustrated and feel like they’ve had to figure things out on their own during this unprecedented crisis.
That’s partly because remote learning wasn’t part of the district’s disaster plan. It also could not have been the initial phase of crisis response, according to David Williams, Metro’s Chief Academic Officer.
He says the district’s “first priority was, of course, to meet that humanitarian goal of continuing to provide meals for those kids that needed it.” When schools first closed, teachers were tasked with finding out who would need food, as roughly 75% of Metro’s 86,000 students qualify for free lunch.
Income inequality is at the core of education inequality, says research scientist Megan Kuhfeld of the Northwest Evaluation Association. She studies what’s known as the “summer slide,” the academic ground that kids lose over vacation. Kuhfeld says it already disproportionately affects low-income and minority students.
“This COVID school closure period is really going to exacerbate inequalities in the socioeconomic gaps that already exist in educational math and reading test scores,” she says.
In a new study, Kuhfeld warns the “COVID slide” — five months of schooling lost, plus the trauma of social distancing — will likely lead to even greater academic gaps.
Williams says the second phase of Metro Schools’ crisis response aims to address these losses in a more coordinated way.
“What we want to do is provide teachers with a very simple, repeatable, systematic framework,” he says. The new system will call on teachers to post daily assignments “and have ways to connect with kids through our learning management system.”
That online system will require training for numerous teachers and students, who still won’t be graded. They’ll be encouraged, but not required, to complete the assignments, because Metro still doesn’t know how many have wifi or a computer device at home. Teachers have been asked to survey families and record that information in a district-wide database.
Meanwhile, more laptops have been made available — up to 10,000, say Metro officials.
But there have been glitches with the rollout. Tamesha Stewart says it took 37 tries before she was able to reserve a laptop for her daughter, a 10th grader at Hillsboro High School.
“It was just ringing, ringing, ringing to the point where it actually would hang up,” Stewart recalls. “I just kept calling and calling and calling back to back.”
Some parents say the computers they’ve reserved haven’t been available when they’ve gone to pick them up.
When launching the new procedures, so close to the end of school, Metro officials intimated they could be used next year — or maybe even over the summer. But they won’t necessarily change what’s happening now, says Jenna Davis, a third-grade teacher at Glenview.
“I can only do what I can do,” she says. “Hopefully parents will take advantage, but I can’t make them.”
Davis has 25 students and still hasn’t talked to all of them. One problem is many of her families are non-English speakers, and it’s been hard to coordinate translators for phone calls.
It wasn’t until five weeks into the shutdown that she got even a third of her students together to just hang out and catch up on Zoom.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the grade level of Tamesha Stewart’s daughter. She is in 10th grade, not a senior.