In response to COVID-19 social distancing protocols, educators in D.C. have had to confront the daunting task of virtually teaching almost a hundred thousand students. It’s crucial to continue supporting schools in navigating this transition, but it’s also important to recognize that distance learning cannot provide the same experience as traditional schooling.

Learning loss is likely. Research has found that even summer breaks – traditionally 10 week-long hiatuses – cause students in elementary and middle school grades to lose nearly one-fifth of the skillsets they learned during the prior school year.[i] New research from NWEA’s Collaborative for Student Growth suggests that when students return to school in the fall of 2020, they will retain about 70 percent of this year’s gains in Reading and less than 50 percent in Math.[ii]

The current crisis is unique in its scale, but previous education emergencies show that it can take years for students to recover the learning they’ve lost. Hurricane Katrina forced most public schools in New Orleans to close for a semester, and it took two full school years for returning students to catch up academically.[iii] Evidence suggests that the negative impact was even worse for low income and Black students.

The last day of in-person schooling in the District occurred on March 13th. EmpowerK12, a non-profit that provides data-driven analyses for education leaders, explored D.C. student data to estimate future achievement outcomes due to coronavirus-related school closures. It expects PARCC proficiency declines of about 1 percentage point for every week of lost instruction.[iv] If schools re-open at the end of August, the city can expect large decreases in the number of students who meet or exceed expectations in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Math.

We hope distance learning efforts will reduce the learning loss experienced during other emergencies, but it does present unique challenges in and of itself that are important to understand and address – to the extent possible.

To learn more about the impact of distance learning and the obstacles it presents, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to several stakeholders who are managing the transition to learning from home, including the Deputy Mayor for Education, a school leader, parents, and student representatives. The following questions were asked:

  1. What is the biggest challenge students face during distance learning?
  2. What do you think the long-term impact of distance learning will be on students?

Below are the responses we received.

Paul Kihn, Deputy Mayor for Education

In the short term, we need to recover, including ensuring our students have all the social and emotional supports they need for a successful return to school, and a citywide commitment to literacy and math recuperation.

We have always known our public schools are much more than buildings. This experience has demonstrated how interconnected our education system is with life outside of our schools. One of the biggest challenges of this unprecedented moment, at the level of individual community members, has been adjusting to how that familiar infrastructure looks and functions while learning at home and interacting with it in a new way. I am enormously proud of all of our students, educators, and families for doing their best under truly unique circumstances.

This moment will leave a lasting impression on all of us. In the short term, we need to recover, including ensuring our students have all the social and emotional supports they need for a successful return to school, and a citywide commitment to literacy and math recuperation. In the longer term, our city, and our public school system, will find some benefit from the integration of distance learning pedagogies into the expansive know-how of our experienced and committed teachers. And we will have benefited from the extraordinary cooperation and collegiality we are experiencing across all public schools, and across government and non-government organizations.

Shawn Hardnett, CEO and Founder, Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS

The bonds that we’ve always had with our students and families have gotten even stronger.

COVID-19 means that we have to change. It isn’t giving us a choice – there will be big shifts in how we do the work that we do. Relationship-building with students is still our biggest priority, and it has been really hard to try and figure out how to continue building bonds virtually. The current situation also exacerbated the gaps between the kids who have a little and the kids who have nothing. For kids who have a little, they have been able to keep moving. We’ve had to work a whole lot harder to support the kids who don’t have much to make sure they stay engaged.

We took the first week of the school closure to look at local as well as national examples of how other schools were handling this. We wanted to see what was working and what wasn’t. We learned that we needed to start small, design phases, success-test all our ideas, be willing to let go of strategies that don’t work, and manage emotions. I’m really glad we took that time to understand what was going on.

To start, we decided to focus on reconnecting relationships and technology integration. We spent a week making sure everyone had what they needed to study virtually. We called all our students, provided tech support, and, in some cases, we even hand-delivered our Chromebooks.

Now, we’re in Phase 2. We’re kicking off everything we wanted to try. If it works, we’ll double down. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something new. Because we’re so focused on the relational aspect of schooling, we’re trying to give our students as much of that as we can. At 9:45am, every student joins a small advisory group where they talk about their weekend, they make sure all their tech is charged, and they engage in a quick check in with their advisers and the 3 to 5 peers in their advisory group. They do this twice a day and have at least one additional one on one check-in with a teacher. We also do a virtual lunch. Everyone joins the same Zoom room, and they yell at each other while they eat lunch – it’s just like being in an actual lunch room, and they love it. We also decided to condense course work to focus exclusively on Reading and Math. Basically, we’re trying to move everything the kids love to the virtual space.

The third phase will be all about accountability. We’re going to focus on codifying and further testing the strategies that are working to guarantee that our students are being academically challenged.

The good news is that there is definitely a silver lining here. The bonds that we’ve always had with our students and families have gotten even stronger. We have about 96 percent attendance every day, and our families are over the moon. For the first two weeks, we hosted a daily virtual family town hall and called parents every day. Now, we are at about twice a week. We use these town halls to connect our families to local resources, let them know what we’re planning, and communicate what they can expect in the virtual schools. The lines of communication have become so strong. We’re really lucky, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure our students don’t fall further behind. We’re also learning a ton about how we can continue using virtual learning when all this is over. We’re going to need a lot of recovery, so we’re thinking about the ways we can use technology to expand the number of instruction hours our students receive.

Euclides Rengifo Cordoba, PAVE parent leader

From one moment to another, they went from going to school where they shared a class…to being in front of a computer and trying to advance their education without receiving any type of training for this activity.

First of all, I want to say that I am going to answer these questions from 3 different points of view: as a parent, as a primary school teacher, and as a Latino because I currently have all three profiles.

What is the biggest challenge students face during distance learning?

Focusing on a single aspect to answer this question is very difficult for me because in my children’s case, one of the challenges is the social-emotional change they have been undergoing because they miss their school, their teachers, and their fellow students. From one moment to another, they went from going to school where they shared a class schedule with related spaces for all their different classes (for example, art classes, physical education, playing sports on the fields at school, participating in class with their teachers, and sharing their rest time with their classmates) to being in front of a computer and trying to advance their education without receiving any type of training for this activity. For us as Latinos, social-emotional relationships are very important, even if it is only within families. If we do not interact with other people, we feel that we are sick or that we lack a part of the body.

On the other hand, as a teacher I have no problem with supporting my children’s learning process because I know the teaching methodologies, strategies, and techniques that they use daily. But this topic surprised us all and I must honestly say that all of us teachers are also learning about different technological tools to try to find a quality education in the midst of the current challenge where children are at a distance. For example, we have to learn on the go how to use applications to record and edit videos and learn to manage programs to be able to give virtual classes. We have to learn how to use programs such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, conduct video calls via WhatsApp, among other applications and technological tools which were not previously known to all teachers or to parents, whether Latino or not, which is a huge challenge for today’s education because, in a surprising way, technology became the backbone for continuing with all educational processes in the world.

As a Latino, I think of the parents with whom I speak daily. I help them solve basic internet connection problems or manage programs to connect to virtual classes because not everyone has the same knowledge and skills for managing ICT, and they have not been trained to support the teaching of their children in this way.

On the other hand, it is evident that all families do not have the technological materials or equipment, which is a bit difficult because in many occasions the only way for the virtual classes to function is that all the parties involved, the families and the teacher, must learn to be able to teach – from the handling of technological applications to a teaching technique or strategy. For this, the teacher must have a lot of patience, which allows teaching the adult so that he can help the teaching process of his child.

Lastly, I want to say that the economic factor is hitting Latino families very hard due to a very high percentage that work for short-term or hourly contracts. At the moment, for reasons we all already know they are not receiving any type of income. And if your immigration situation is not defined, you will be very limited in receiving government aid, which directly affects the distance learning process of your children because you won’t have basic resources to feed them well, much less the resources to provide your children with educational assistance, equipment, and sufficient time for them to continue participating in remote classes.

What do you think the long-term impact of distance learning will be on students?

From my point of view, I think that the main impact is social-emotional because the students will have been directly and abruptly impacted by the changes that they experienced during this time, which led them to involuntarily practice and experiment with skills to be able to use technological tools and to discover that there are other ways to receive education.

I also think that when this crisis is over, the students will return to class a little behind in the educational process, because in most cases, they cannot fully develop each skill and cannot achieve benchmarks. It is also very difficult to assess if the students really reached the benchmark. Teachers will have a hard time looking for different ways to recoup the learning loss.

On the other hand, this environment allows schools to develop expertise in technological platforms that could be used as alternative options in any future emergency that prevents students from attending school in person.

Euclides Rengifo Cordoba, PAVE parent leader (Spanish)

Primero que todo quiero decir que estas preguntas las voy a responder desde 3 puntos de vista diferentes, como padre, como maestro de primaria y como latino debido a que en la actualidad tengo las tres perfiles.

¿Cuál es el mayor desafío que enfrentan los estudiantes durante el aprendizaje a distancia?

Enfocarme en un aspecto único para responder esta pregunta es muy difícil para mi porque en el caso de mis hijos uno de los desafíos es el cambio socioemosional que viene sufriendo al extrañar su escuela, sus maestros y sus compañeros de estudio, porque de un momento a otro pasaron de ir a la escuela compartir un horario de clase con espacios relacionados para todas sus diferentes clases por ejemplo, las clases especiales de arte, educación física, practicar deportes en las canchas de la escuela, participar en clase con cada uno de los maestros y compartir en su tiempo de descanso con sus compañeros para hora estar frente a una computadora y tratar de avanzar con su educación sin recibir ningún tipo de entrenamiento para esta actividad, para nosotros como latinos las relaciones socioemosionales son muy importantes asi sea entre familias unicamente si no nos relacionamos sentimos que estamos enfermos o que nos falta una parte del cuerpo.

Por otro lado como maestro no tengo inconveniente con el apoyo al proceso de aprendizaje de mis hijos porque soy un profesional en la enseñanza quien tiene experiencia, conoce las metodologías, estrategias y técnicas de enseñanza que usan diarimente. Pero este tema a todos nos tomo de sorpresa y debo decir con honestidad que todos los maestros también estamos aprendiendo sobre diferentes herramientas tecnológicas para tratar de detectar una educación de calidad en medio del desafío actual donde los niños están a distancia, por ejemplo tenemos que aprender sobre la marcha a utilizar aplicaciones para grabar y editar videos, aprender a administrar programas para poder dar las clases virtuales como Zoom, Google Hangouts, video llamadas por WhatsApp entre otras aplicaciones y herramientas tecnológicas las cuales no eran de conocimiento previo para todos los maestros y de igual forma para los padres de familia ya sean latinos o no, lo cual es un desafío enorme para la educación actual debido a que de manera sorprendente la tecnología paso a ser la columna vertebral para continuar con todos los procesos de educación en el mundo.

Como latino yo pienso en los padres con quienes hablo diariamente ayudando a solucionar inconvenientes básicos de conexión de internet o el manejo de los programas para conectar a las clases virtuales debido a que no todos tienen el mismo conocimiento y habilidad para el manejo de las TIC y aun no fueron entrenados ni capacitados para apoyar la enseñanza de sus hijos de esta manera.

Por otro lado es evidente de todas las familias no cuentan con los materiales o equipos tecnológicos, lo cual es un poco difícil porque en muchas ocasiones la única manera de las clases virtuales funciones es que todas las partes involucradas, las familias y el maestro deben aprender para enseñar desde el manejo de aplicaciones tecnológicas hasta una técnica o estrategia de enseñanza para lo cual el maestro debe tener mucha paciencia, lo que permite enseñar al adulto con el fin de que este pueda ayudar al proceso de enseñanza de su hijo.

Por ultimo quiero decir que el factor económico esta golpeando muy fuertemente a las familias latinas debido a un porcentaje muy alto que labora por contratos a corto plazo o por horas, en estos momentos por los motivos que todos ya sabemos no están recibiendo ningún tipo de ingreso y si su situación de imigracion no esta definida se vera muy limitada para recibir ayudas gubernamentales lo cual afecta directamente el proceso de educación a la distancia de sus hijos porque sino tienen recursos básicos para alimentar bien mucho menos se tiene recursos para poder brindarle asistencia educación a sus hijos con los elementos, equipos y el tiempo suficiente para continuar participando en las clases a distancia.

¿Cuál cree que será el impacto a largo plazo del aprendizaje a distancia en los estudiantes?

Desde mi punto de vista creo que el principal impacto es socioemosional debido a que los estudiantes tendran un impacto directo y brusco que tuvieron durante esta temporada lo cual los llevo a que involuntariamente terminen practicando y experimentando habilidades para manejar las herramientas tecnológicas y descubrir que existen otras formas de recibir educacion.

Tambien pienso que los estudiantes cuando termine esta crisis retornaran una clase un poco atrasados en el proceso educativo debido a que en la mayoría de los casos no pueden desarrollar en su totalidad cada una de las actividades y no alcanzar un objetivo, también es muy dificil evaluar si los estudiantes realemnte alcanzar la meta, por lo cual los estudiantes se veran impactado en la calidad de la educación y el maestro tendran un reto en buscar los mecanismos para fortalecer los vacios que tendrán los estudiantes mediante diferentes diasnosticos.

Por otro lado este ambiente permite que las escuelas puedan mutar a desarrollar plataformas tecnológicas que pueden requerir la educación virtual en constante funcionamiento con personal capacitado, equipos y material técnico necesario para que pueda ser una opción alternativa que permita ser utilizado en cualquier emergencia a futuro o cuando los estudiantes no puedad asistir presencialmente a la escual por diferentes razones.

Andrea Tucker, PAVE parent leader

One of my children has an IEP and was making progress prior to closures, but it has been difficult to access the same services virtually.

It has been very challenging to have three children in varying grades and learning levels (twins in 5th grade and another child in 6th grade). They are learning through a mix of online classes from 9am to 1pm every day and learning packets. We are figuring out both methods – it has been a little hectic to log in at the beginning of each day, and it can also difficult to differentiate by learning level using the learning packets – and I need to understand subjects to support their learning, which is more challenging for some of the middle school subjects. One of my children has an IEP and was making progress prior to closures, but it has been difficult to access the same services virtually.

This has all been a lot to manage, as I’m still working for my business clients and fitting in Zoom meetings in between providing extra activities to keep my kids busy and engaged, like sewing on a button, cooking, and learning cursive. Thankfully, we have access to the right technology because their grandfather bought computers for them at the beginning of the school year. Other families I’ve talked to are not that lucky. In the long term, I’m very concerned about the potential of five months without learning in school for all students.

Brittany Wade, PAVE parent leader

During this process, I have gotten the chance to connect with my kids and really see what they’re learning every day, their attitudes toward learning, what they are really interested in, and what they want out of school.

The biggest challenge my family is facing during distance learning is trying to manage a schedule and the kids’ school work every day. I am a mother with five children, ages 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12. My children want to learn about things they’re interested in, so I have had to look up resources for different things like robotics, space exploration, and the human body to make sure they’re enjoying learning during this time. So every day I’m trying to manage their multiple schedules and keep them all on task. All while trying to make sure chores are done and my children get enough time outside to keep them active.

My challenges as a mother have been trying to get some alone time so that I can decompress and then plan for the next wave of teaching. Also being the full-time disciplinarian sucks! I seem to always be the bad guy nowadays.

This whole process has made me consider homeschooling or what my role as a parent could be in my children’s learning. During this process, I have gotten the chance to connect with my kids and really see what they’re learning every day, their attitudes toward learning, what they are really interested in, and what they want out of school. I don’t want my children to just learn material for a test and data points. My whole outlook on education has been changed now that my children are home and I see it firsthand. Just because you send your children to a school that has resources does not mean those resources are helping your child. Parents should have the resources and support they need to be more proactive in their children’s education process, so that their kids can succeed.

Anise Walker, PAVE parent leader

I’m concerned about how we’re going to go about addressing the trauma students are experiencing right now.

The greatest challenge we’re facing is the social loss. My daughter is a senior, so she’s not going to be able to participate in events like prom or graduation. She’s an only child, so I was really looking forward to these milestones. Her school has said they’ll organize a prom and an in-person graduation at some point, but it’s hard to not know when that will be possible. My daughter was also very active in school, and she misses her friends and teachers. Her teachers are doing a good job at staying in touch, but the loss of physical connection is still a problem. She’s doing well academically, but she has ADD, so sitting in front of a computer all day is also difficult. It requires a greater push from me, but we’re doing everything we can to adapt. More broadly, I’m concerned about how we’re going to go about addressing the trauma students are experiencing right now. My hope is that we’ll focus on their sociol-emotional health first before easing back into academics. We have to Maslow before we can Bloom.

Letisha Vinson, PAVE parent leader

My kids aren’t accustomed to studying at home – home does not mimic the “controlled environment” they have adapted to since Pre-Kindergarten.

The last few weeks have been challenging to say the least. I work at a hospital where all employees have been designated as essential. I am fortunate enough to work from home right now because the work that I do is more education-based and not considered absolutely necessary. Though I have been granted telework, I worry about what will happen if I run out of things to do. I fear that one day I’ll get a call telling me to come in and see patients or assist somehow on the front line. I’m also concerned that they may cut my hours or question the need for my services since they are not being provided at the bedside. I’m also worried that remote outcomes for my work are not significant enough to continue distant methods.

It’s difficult to navigate my professional obligations and concerns while also having to home school. Keeping the kids engaged all the time is very difficult. I’m concerned that they do not take distance learning seriously and belittle the need to practice all the skills and concepts they learned throughout the year. KIPP is doing a good job, but my kids aren’t accustomed to studying at home – home does not mimic the “controlled environment” they have adapted to since Pre-Kindergarten. They think of home as a place to be free; that is, to run around, play games, go outside, hang out with their friends, relax, etc. Now, they have to completely unravel the separation between school and home and shift their mindset to focus on packets and binders of paper. They’re reviewing material they already learned while being given weeks and weeks of homework with little interaction with teachers and peers. Recently, with the addition of computer-based learning, there has been some improvement in engagement but only for brief spurts.

Their teachers call them to check on their progress, assist as needed, and sometimes video chat to take a look at the work they’re doing rather than just hear them talk about it, which is great, but it isn’t the total solution. Being remote is definitely different; I’ve also found it more difficult to interact with the teachers – I know they’re doing their best but it’s hard to get a response from them, and they don’t have many answers since so much is uncertain and ever-changing.

I’m always looking to find the silver lining. I’m happy I still have a job and have the means to provide for my children. I am truly grateful and appreciative of the resources and tools we have to make this a positive experience despite all odds.

Katrice Fuller, PAVE parent leader

The biggest challenges for my family during school closures and distance learning have been juggling new schedules for five boys with a full-time job.

The biggest challenges for my family during school closures and distance learning have been juggling new schedules for five boys with a full-time job. My youngest son is three months old, and my oldest is a seventh grader. It took some time to figure out and adjust to what schools were expecting during this time for my three oldest children (in the third, fourth, and seventh grades), and coordinate special education services on top of academic activities. It has also been extremely disruptive to my younger children, especially the two-year-old who misses social interaction and music class at his daycare. I am balancing their new schedules with a husband who is working outside of the home, while I work full-time as the Director of Family Engagement at a D.C. school – this role has been intense with realigning to new school schedules and ensuring families have the resources they need. Together, we are figuring out how to create normalcy in the absence of our usual routines.

Dayja Burton, Student Representative to the State Board of Education

I know a lot of people who are having a tough time mentally because isolation isn’t easy especially if you suffer from depression or anxiety.

This situation is really tough for me. It’s my senior year, and we were just getting to that point in the year where it starts to actually feel like senior year. People are about to get accepted to college, I was supposed to start flag football. Now, I don’t know if we’ll be able to say goodbye to our teachers, I don’t know if we’ll have a yearbook. Some people might think this is trivial, but I really wanted these memories to look back on one day.

I also don’t think most people are joining the classes they’re supposed to. It’s just not on our radar. I think the flexibility is nice though – it gives me a glimpse into what college might be like.

I think the most important consideration should be students who are homeless and are struggling to get food. My home life is safe and decent, but there are students who see school as a safe place. I know a lot of people who are having a tough time mentally because isolation isn’t easy especially if you suffer from depression or anxiety. It’s a really terrible time, and I don’t know how schools are going to move forward.

Alex O’Sullivan, Student Representative to the State Board of Education

Distance learning is placing the technological and academic burden on students and families who may not be well-equipped to adjust to these changes.

I think every student will have different challenges based on their own living and home situations and environments. But, I think the most disadvantaged students in terms of socioeconomic status and inequity in access to technology are going to be hit hardest by distance learning, because distance learning relies not only upon the possession of a computer in the first place, but also the advanced use of this technology. For example, one must know how to submit assignments or download pdfs. These are skills not all of us have because not all students grew up with electronic devices like these in their homes, and not all students have parents or guardians who are tech-savvy, so there can be a real barrier for disadvantaged communities. Some students have primarily depended on public libraries to use computers to write essays or gain technological assistance; since public libraries are now closed, this is no longer an option. Distance learning is placing the technological and academic burden on students and families who may not be well-equipped to adjust to these changes. Certain families may not even have the time or may be too concerned with the priority of accessing food for their children, a service that was previously provided by schools. They might also be concerned about accessing healthcare for the ongoing pandemic.

Distance learning is going to be catastrophically detrimental to the academic development of a significant number of students throughout the city who will bear the worst consequences of COVID-19. These will be the families who are going to be affected worst by the pandemic as a result of unemployment, sickness in the family, a lack of proper medical care, etc. The long-term impact will be the inevitable widening of the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students in the city as well as across the nation.

 

This is the first in a series of posts about how COVID-19 is affecting educators, students, and their families.

 

Feature photo by Ted Eytan (Source)


Tanaz Meghjani is an Education Analyst at the D.C. Policy Center.

 

Notes

[i] Boots, J. 2020. “How COVID-19 Regular School Closures Could Impact DC Student Proficiency in 2020-21.” EmpowerK12. Available at: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/a5cb70d9-d6a4-465d-9015-8c015fceeee6/downloads/COVID-19%20Impact%20on%20DC%20Student%20Achievement%20-%20Em.pdf?ver=1586291737664

[ii] Hawkins, B. 2020. “Researchers’ Urgent Message for Schools: Start Planning Now for a Precipitous ‘COVID Slide’ Next Year.” The 74. Available at: https://www.the74million.org/article/researchers-urgent-message-for-schools-start-planning-now-for-a-precipitous-covid-slide-next-year/

[iii] Kamenetz, A. 2020. “9 out of 10 Children Are Out of School Worldwide. What Now?”. NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/02/824964864/nine-out-of-10-of-the-world-s-children-are-out-of-school-what-now

[iv] Boots, J. 2020. “How COVID-19 Regular School Closures Could Impact DC Student Proficiency in 2020-21.” EmpowerK12. Available at: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/a5cb70d9-d6a4-465d-9015-8c015fceeee6/downloads/COVID-19%20Impact%20on%20DC%20Student%20Achievement%20-%20Em.pdf?ver=1586291737664

[v] Hamilton, L, John F. Pane, Elizabeth D. Steiner. 2020. “Online Doesn’t Have to Mean Impersonal”. The Rand Blog. Available at: https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/04/online-doesnt-have-to-mean-impersonal.html

[vi] Kamenetz, A. 2020. “9 out of 10 Children Are Out of School Worldwide. What Now?”. NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/02/824964864/nine-out-of-10-of-the-world-s-children-are-out-of-school-what-now

[vii] Hamilton, L, John F. Pane, Elizabeth D. Steiner. 2020. “Online Doesn’t Have to Mean Impersonal”. The Rand Blog. Available at: https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/04/online-doesnt-have-to-mean-impersonal.html

[viii] Stein, P. 2020. “As D.C. Students Struggle to Get Online, Schools and Parents Rush to Fill the Void.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-schools-online-access/2020/04/07/5a4f3d66-754c-11ea-85cb-8670579b863d_story.html

 

D.C. Policy Center Fellows are independent writers, and we gladly encourage the expression of a variety of perspectives. The views of our Fellows, published here or elsewhere, do not reflect the views of the D.C. Policy Center.

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