AUSTIN (KXAN) — A school bus sits idle with the engine running in the parking lot of a quiet subsidized housing complex in northwest Austin. It doesn’t mean much to people going by, but to Dakota Hancock, it’s everything.
The Austin Independent School District bus is providing a critical WiFi signal the soon-to-be high school sophomore at LBJ Early College High School needs to connect to the campus she is extremely involved with.
Dakota lives about 100 feet away from the bus, and logs onto her school-issued laptop everyday to interact with her teachers in virtual classrooms, and to receive and upload lessons. What she misses the most is drill team.
“I’m excited just to start dancing again,” said Dakota. “I honestly enjoy dancing.”
She was also very focused on her academics before the COVID-19 pandemic, and her mother says that hasn’t changed at home.
“I want to give them a shout out, I’m very impressed,” said Dakota’s mother, Diana Hancock. “They all reached out to Dakota — all of her teachers, the principal.”
As the virtual school year ends for Central Texas students and summer begins, teachers and education experts worry what the effects will be on children once they return to a regular classroom. Specifically, students who were already falling behind, and who may be falling through the cracks with remote learning.
The digital divide
According to AISD’s lead technology officer Kevin Schwartz, more than 44,000 students in grades 3-12 have a district-issued Chromebook.
But in this week’s school board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz said AISD needs more devices and the district is working to address the gap for the fall.
Schwartz said there are approximately 2,000 students in grades three through eighth who have requested a Chromebook, but have not received it.
He gave three main reasons:
- Many students requested curbside pickup, but have not shown up yet.
- Some students requested delivery, but were not home when the district stopped by.
- Others are awaiting a device through a grant, but there are shipping delays.
“I think one of our critical needs is our younger students needing iPads and there was kind of a backlog on ipads,” said Dr. Lisa Goodnow, AISD’s associate superintendent of academics and social and emotional learning.
The digital divide keeping students from continued learning is an issue the state education commissioner started tackling this week. Commissioner Mike Morath is heading up a task force that will be surveying districts to find out how many students don’t have the technology or WiFi they need to learn remotely.
But even second grader Leyla Hancock will tell you it’s not the same as face-to-face instruction.
“It’s hard,” said Leyla sitting in front of her laptop on her back porch. “I know stuff in school — it makes it easier in school.”
A recent survey of nearly 2,000 teachers across the country by the National Education Association found schools with large numbers of low income families feel distance learning is less effective due to technology challenges, and that providing the same level of education to all students is a serious problem.
“We all know it’s not the same, we all know there are some kids that don’t learn well on a zoom call,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association. “We all know a homework packet even delivered to your front door by loving teacher is not the same thing as, ‘Let’s have a class discussion, what a great question!'”
Teachers in wealthier schools versus those with large numbers of low income families gave much different responses in the survey to the simple question: How’s it going? Garcia said in schools with a low percentage of children living poverty teachers said the remote learning was inconvenient and hard to get students’ attention.
As the level of poverty grew, Garcia said the teachers were saying things like: “I’m not sure I can find these kids, and the only technology in their home is their mom’s smart phone and she has to take it to work with her because she works at a grocery store shocking shelves.”
Dr. Goodnow told KXAN when AISD schools first closed, the district could only reach 50% of families. Now, she said that number is up to about 96% due to concerted efforts by campus staff to track down families.
Linder Elementary School’s parent support specialist, Maria Hanley said their campus has connected with 97-98% of students during this tough time.
“The priority is to ensure that the families are supported and they actually have what they need,” said Hanley.
Tackling the COVID-19 slide
AISD is also coming up with a plan to tackle what education researchers are calling the COVID-19 slide: students who’ve fallen behind in their academics during the three months at home, plus three more months of summer.
When students return, Dr. Goodnow says campuses will start targeting where the gaps exist.
“It will be very personalized and then we will be able to quickly accelerate and pick out those most important skills so that we get our students back on grade level,” said Dr. Goodnow.
New research by the Northwest Evaluation Association predicts students in grades three through eighth, who’ve done very little for six months, could return in the fall with only 70% of the gains they should’ve made in reading. And only 50% of gains they should’ve made in math.
The real MVP’s are families with multiple children.
Silvia Valdez is a mother of five Austin ISD students under one roof in grades pre-K through eighth. She has, somehow, managed to keep them on task with remote learning.
“With my two little ones I’ve been helping them over my phone, and my three oldest ones they use Blend to do their homework every day,” said Valdez.
The free meals AISD delivers to their apartment complex daily has also been keeping her family fed.
AISD says future success for their 80,0000 students is something the district cannot do alone.
“We are approaching this as a community as much as we are a school district so this is a community effort,” said Dr. Goodnow.
KXAN Investigator Erin Cargile will have a full report on KXAN News at 6 p.m.