Seven months after school campuses closed, Mayra Guzman, a parent in Fresno County, summed it up for just about everyone: “I feel miserable.”
While some students have acclimated to distance learning and even thrived, most in EdSource’s project following California families on how they are coping with Covid-19, are still struggling with spotty internet access, technical glitches and the frustration of not seeing friends and teachers in person. Concerns with distance learning track a recent EdSource poll in which 75% of registered California voters, including parents, say that distance learning is worse than in class instruction.
And as progress reports trickle in, the evidence is clear: many students are struggling academically. Some students who usually get As and Bs are now facing Ds and Fs, and fear they’ll never catch up.
Parents are doing what they can, but most are juggling multiple roles — helping children, troubleshooting computer problems, working their own jobs and trying to keep the household running. For those with limited English skills, the challenges are even more daunting.
“I feel spread thin,” said Carolyn Bims-Payne, a parent in Oakland. “Not overwhelmed. But I feel like I’m stretched.”
One parent, Molli Myers, who lives on the Yurok reservation near the Oregon border, cut back her work hours, so she could devote more time to helping her five children with distance learning.
“It was a super hard decision to make. I have a good job that I like a lot … but I didn’t feel like I was working at 100% on anything,” she said.
Mental health was a concern for most families. The Myer family pays close attention to their children’s emotional states, giving them regular opportunities to talk about how they’re feeling. Other students meet with therapists online, or FaceTime with friends. Karyn Tran, a seventh-grader in San Jose, spends her free time practicing the ukulele.
Despite the mountain of frustrations, most families were determined to persevere. One family, the Dunn-Nasrs of Sacramento, said their children’s health is the priority, and they won’t send their children back to school until there’s a coronavirus vaccine.
“I hate having to make that choice as a parent,” Rashida Dunn-Nasr said, “but I’d rather sacrifice their education than their health and have it affect them long-term.”
Charlie Allbritton, a high school junior in San Diego who has a learning disability, is struggling mightily in math. Most days, he feels hopelessly lost. But he refuses to give up.
“The other day I was so upset I wanted to just throw in the towel,” his mother Moira said. “Charlie brought me a little note. It said, ‘I want to stay in (school). I want my diploma.’ So we’re going to figure this out.”
Yurok Tribal Land
Balancing work and distance learning reached a tipping point for Frankie and Molli Myers recently, whose five kids attend Klamath-Trinity Joint School District in the Northern California coast just south of the Oregon border.
The workload was simply overwhelming on top of the destructive wildfires in the coastal woods and forests that surround the Yurok reservation where the family lives . So Molli cut back her work hours to one day a week to spend more time at home helping with schoolwork. “I couldn’t keep up with the kids’ school work, everything was just chaos in the house all of the time.”
Stepping away from work has not been easy financially. The family had to tighten its budget in several ways including refinancing their truck. But so far, it’s been worth it, Molli and Frankie Myers said.
“I think our kids are okay in terms of their academic progress,” said Frankie Myers. Report cards have not been given out yet, he added, but he’s been pleased with the feedback his kids are getting on assignments. “Our kids are getting more work done than a lot of other kids in the district. If you don’t have parents to help you, this stuff isn’t easy to figure out.”
Sofia Myers, who is a freshman at Hoopa Valley High School, has actually been enjoying being able to go at her own pace with schoolwork during distance learning.
Because internet access is spotty on the reservation where she usually lives, her school district delivers paper packets for school work. She only speaks to her teacher for about 30 minutes per week, she said. But her parents and aunt keep her on top of her assignments.
“I haven’t gotten to see any of my grades back yet, but I’m feeling pretty good about them,” said Sofia. “I feel like this works better for me how it works now. I don’t have to worry about everything at once.”
But even simple assignments have been difficult to focus on as wildfires raged through Northern California, covering the area with toxic smoke for days at a time.
The air quality was so bad that the school district handled it like a snow day, canceling even distance learning activities on a recent week, meaning families like the Myers didn’t receive new schoolwork packets.
“It’s the continuity that’s the biggest problem,” Molli Myers said. “Having them on a schedule is really important for kids, and that has not been happening.”
Molli and Frankie worry about their children’s mental wellbeing through it all. Around 2016, a suicide epidemic took the lives of several Yurok adults and youth, devastating the community of about 3,000. Since then, and even more so during the pandemic, the family has been working on talking more openly about mental health issues and challenges that lead up to them.
“One of the things we added to our family dynamic is check-ins about how we are doing emotionally and mentally,” said Frankie Myers. “We get it. We know first hand that things happen, and they are terrible.”
Adults too are affected, he added. “It’s hard for us as adults, I’m struggling with it myself, but this is something we have to talk about because it’s hard lessons we learned as a community.”
In addition to the check-ins, the family is also taking off some pressure off school by giving kids breaks or time away when they need it. Sofia recently took some time away from home to stay with an aunt in Sacramento, for example.
“I was missing my family. We haven’t been able to have dances and ceremonies when you usually see everyone and visit,” she said.
“I’m really sad that my first year of high school is at home,” she continued. “I was looking forward to going to football games and hanging out with friends, being in a new area with new people, but I know we need to be safe.”
After a rocky spring, Ann Hoeffer, her daughter and her six grandchildren finally hit a groove with distance learning. Brothers Jesse and Gabriel, who are autistic, were doing well with their behavioral therapist. Three-year-old Esme was allowed back to her preschool in-person. The older kids had settled into a routine with homework and Zoom classes.
Then Granddaughter Irie’s report card came. Straight Ds and Fs.
“We went from being great to everything falling apart. Excuse my tears,” said an emotional Hoeffer, who’s helping raise her grandchildren in rural Lake County north of the Bay Area. “Amber (Scroggins), Irie’s mom, threw her hands up and went into her room and cried and cried and cried. She said, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” referring to the multitude of responsibilities she faces.
Irie, 10, had always been an A and B student. But with her mom and grandmother distracted with the other children in the house and their own jobs, Irie started falling behind academically. Sometimes she couldn’t get on Zoom, other times she couldn’t follow the teacher’s lessons. The more she didn’t understand, the more she tuned out, her grandmother said.
Hoeffer’s daughter, Amber Scroggins, had been managing fairly well — keeping on top of schedules and routines for her six children and stepchildren, cooking and cleaning, making sure Jesse and Gabriel connected with their therapists and continued to improve their behavior.
But it hasn’t been easy. Wildfires, heat and thick smoke meant the children were stuck in the house for several weeks. Scorpions had nested under the house and were occasionally spotted indoors; one of the children was stung. The oldest, Elissa, 16, had gone from being an outgoing cheerleader who was active in drama and dance to being withdrawn and occasionally depressed. Although the family was coping OK overall, Scroggins felt the children would be better off attending school in-person and returning to their old routine.
“I feel like I’m not just the mom, I’m the mom, teacher, judge and executioner,” she said. “I’ll be honest, it doesn’t work that well. Some days I feel defeated.”
Irie’s report card was the last straw.
When Amber fell apart, the two boys quickly followed suit, throwing tantrums and becoming physically aggressive. Hoeffer described the scene as instant pandemonium.
After a family discussion, they agreed on a solution: Elissa would set aside time every day to help Irie log into her classes and finish her homework.
“I said, as the matriarch of this family, we have got to help each other out and get through it,” Hoeffer said. “That’s the only way we’re going to make this work. But we’ll do it. It’s just another bump in the road.”
Distance learning has improved slightly for the Dunn-Nasr family of Sacramento since the beginning of the school year, but the family’s four children are still struggling with internet connectivity problems and inconsistent schedules from their schools.
Audrey, Noah and William, who are in fourth through sixth grade, respectively, at Martin Luther King Jr. School in Sacramento spend three to five hours a day taking classes on Zoom. This is a big improvement from the one-hour-a-day of instruction two of the children were receiving when school first reopened on Sept. 3.
Jayden, a ninth-grader at Kennedy High School, attends class for 3.5 hours a day. He’s struggling with biology and math, but enjoys the online physical education class that allows him to track his activity on an app.
Rashida Dunn-Nasr says her children’s schedules vary greatly from teacher to teacher, even in the same school. She suspects it’s because the Sacramento City Unified and the Sacramento City Teachers Association have still not come to an agreement on a distance learning plan for the school year.
It has taken some getting used to, but the children say distance learning has gotten easier as they have become better acquainted with Zoom and the other educational platforms used by their teachers.
“Distance learning is going better because I have a better idea of what to do,” William said.
There have been some curve balls for the kids, however. Jayden was confused and disheartened after teachers began making assignments that were due on weekends.
Recent progress reports show that the kids’ grades are slightly lower than when they attended classes on campus, according to Dunn-Nasr.
“It’s disappointing,” Dunn-Nasr said. “I know that they are capable, and I feel like they are losing more and more interest in education as a whole. They aren’t excited about it. I’m not excited about it. I dread Monday. It’s a challenge.”
Despite that evaluation of distance learning, Dunn-Nasr says she won’t return her children to in-person instruction at school campuses until there is a vaccine.
“I hate having to make that choice as a parent, but I’d rather sacrifice their education than their health and have it affect them long term,” she said.
Dunn-Nasr worries that Audrey and Noah, her two youngest children, are missing out on developmental milestones by studying at home isolated from their classmates. Both miss their friends.
Audrey would really like to meet her teacher in person. “I’m really excited because my teacher, so far, is really nice and a lot of the kids say she’s nice too,” Aubrey said.
– Diana Lambert
Though the 2020-2021 school year got off to a smooth start for high school students Camila and Leo Cruzado, after two months they are beginning to face struggles.
Last year, Camila got mostly As, she said. But in her senior year at Pinole Valley High near Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area, she’s struggled to keep up with her assignments. Even though teachers in their district are not docking students for late work, she’s fallen so far behind in her Government class that she doesn’t think she’ll be able to finish her assignments and might fail the class. In her other classes, she has an A and two Cs.
The grades are due in part to Camila having a harder time grasping the curriculum during distance learning, she said.
“When I’m at school, I find ways to get the help I need, and I’m able to get answers from my teachers right there instead of waiting for them to respond to my emails,” Cruzado said. “Now it’s way different.”
She and Leo are also having issues with their home’s internet connection The strain on the home Wi-Fi from both of them taking classes online at the same time causes interruptions to their live lessons, Camila said. She prefers when teachers post videos of their lessons, so she can go back if she misses something.
One of the biggest reasons she’s behind on her assignments, though, is because she spends a lot of time and energy helping her mother out with her brother, Leo, who has ADHD and is on an individualized education program — or IEP, which is developed in collaboration with teachers, parents, therapists, counselors and other school staff. A California law passed in June requires districts to draft distance learning plans for all students in special education, tailored to each student’s unique needs.
Camila and Leo’s parents do not speak English, so Camila has been acting as a translator and liaison for Leo’s IEP. She said she’s happy to help, but that the language barrier can be frustrating for her and her mom.
“Sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying, and she gets frustrated, and that makes me frustrated because I want to help,” Camila said. “So I’m a little stressed out at the moment and I’m trying to get through it.”
Helping with Leo, trying to keep her grades up and dealing with other personal issues has taken a toll on her mental health, she said. Camila has been coping by doing online therapy and leaning on her friends for support. She and her friends Facetime every day, she said, which has strengthened their friendship.
Though the distance has been hard on her friend group, its times like these that make it clear who will actually be there for each other, she said.
Now that her two sons have finished their first quarter of distance learning in Oakland Unified, Carolyn Bims-Payne said she was not surprised by the progress reports she received for her sons Michael Lee, a seventh-grader, and Jaylen Lee, a fourth-grader. But, they also served as a wake-up call.
Michael, who received a score of between 70% and 80% out of 100%, needs to focus on turning in his assignments on time and on reading the instructions carefully before he submits them, she said. Jaylen, who received mostly 3s on a 1 to 4-point scale with 4 being the highest, needs to focus on reading comprehension, she added.
Bims-Payne, who works full time as an Alameda County social worker, said she wants to be able to focus more attention on her sons instead of working in her bedroom while they work in the kitchen and in the dining room. So, she plans to take a four-week leave of absence to “really make sure that I’m getting them what they need.”
“I feel spread thin,” she said. “Not overwhelmed. But I’m feeling like I’m stretched.”
Although her sons’ Zoom sessions are still not glitch-free, Bims-Payne said the boys are flexible and resilient, and they have learned to adapt. When Jaylen couldn’t hear his class recently, he sent a private message to the teacher telling her that he needed to log off and then log back on.
Overall, Bims-Payne said distance learning is going better this fall than it did in the spring, since both the district and her family have “gotten the hang of it.” But while the shorter school day is something her sons appreciate, Bims-Payne said they don’t seem to be learning as much as they would in-person.
Still, they have been working on a variety of assignments both online and offline that are engaging them, she said. Jaylen takes online math quizzes and recently wrote an essay about why the school should extend recess, and a short profile of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in honor of Latino Heritage month.
Jaylen asked his teacher during office hours how he should go about writing his opinion essay. She told him to write six paragraphs and to research his idea.
“I wrote that during the Covid quarantine, we didn’t have a lot of exercise, and we need exercise because it helps us focus in class,” Jaylen said.
Michael is doing a lot of projects on his own, then going over them during Zoom classes, Bims-Payne said. He learned about Islam in social studies, has completed some math projects and created his own beat using a keyboard and a music class app, she added.
Michael said he has struggled the most in math because the Khan Academy videos he is assigned don’t always relate to what his class is learning and group discussions in the Zoom breakout room are not working.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s hard to learn because people don’t talk in the breakout rooms.”
The San Jose family of Kathy Lieu and Andrew Tran has experienced the full range of distance learning emotions — from great satisfactions to deep frustrations.
A low point came when second-grader Camdyn had a meltdown when his teacher didn’t call on him after he had raised his hand for a very long time. The teacher hadn’t seen him. Camdyn hadn’t heard — or remembered — that he’s supposed to raise a virtual hand by pressing a button at the bottom of the screen.
But Camdyn’s extra effort to become a decent typist has been paying off — a skill that Alpha Cornerstone Academy Preparatory, a charter school in San Jose, expects second-graders and their families to learn on their own. He’s up to 12-15 words a minute, and that accomplishment makes him less reliant on his mom, which pleases both of them.
Overall, the four kids, attending different schools, have settled into their daily routines, with few complaints from their two girls, seventh-grader Karyn and 15-year-old high school sophomore Carly, studiously working in their rooms.
And there’s more free time for everyone due to a shorter distance learning day and no driving back and forth to multiple schools — demanding a drillmaster’s timing. Camdyn and Karyn have gotten good at playing Minecraft and Karyn has been practicing ukulele, an instrument that College Connections Academy, part of the Franklin-McKinley School District, provided to every student in her class.
Carly, a sophomore at Silver Creek High, seized the opportunity to add AP Physics through UC Scout. Developed by the University of California, its online courses satisfy entrance requirements to UC and California State University. Tuition for the two-semester, go-at-your-own-pace course is $800, and Carly’s progressing quickly.
With a stable home life, generally reliable internet and a quiet place for each child to study, the Tran children are making the most of distance learning. But like other kids, they too suffer from social-emotional deficits, the education term for face-to-face connections that distance learning can’t provide. All but Camdyn are attending new schools. During English class, Carly has broken the ice in breakout rooms to chat with new friends, but it’s been harder so far for the others. Mainly there has been silence and awkwardness, Lieu reports.
In an EdSource poll, 79% of parents said that keeping children motivated and sustaining their interest as their biggest challenges of distance learning. Count the Tran parents among them — at least for Camdyn and his older brother Aidan, who is Karyn’s twin. Creating engaging content requires teachers to change methods of instruction, but distance learning also requires students’ self-control, said Andrew Tran.
“If you sit in a classroom, even if the subject is boring, you still have to kind of pay attention,” he said. “You can’t wander around and chat with other people or play games on your phone.”
That is what they suspect Aidan has been doing. He didn’t do well on his first report card, and the counselor at his charter school, University Preparatory Academy, set up a conversation. The message: There’s time before the end of the semester; not to worry, so let’s come up with a plan to deal with Aidan’s distractions and missed assignments.
For starters, no turning off the camera when he’s on Zoom. That makes it easier for teachers to spot flagging attention and eyes wandering away to YouTube.
– John Fensterwald
Having to keep track of multiple passwords and log in and out of different applications is making distance learning exasperating for 10-year-old Priscila Ruiz Ramirez and her family.
Priscila, who has autism, is enrolled in a special education class in Los Banos Unified in the Central Valley. She has speech therapy sessions twice a week for 30 minutes.
But in the first couple of months of school she missed many of those precious minutes, because of technical difficulties. The situation has gotten a little better as the school year has progressed.
Priscila has to use at least 10 different applications for distance learning. Every morning, she has to log into Google Classroom. When it is time for speech therapy, she has to leave her regular special education class in Zoom and go to another application, Google Meet, her mother Armanda Ruiz said. In order to get into that session, she has to use a separate password, which changes every day and is sent by email.
At first, sometimes Ruiz couldn’t find the password, or she clicked on the wrong password, because there were multiple passwords in one email. By the time she finally logged in, after messaging back and forth with the teacher and sorting things out, Priscila often only had about 10 minutes of therapy left.
“And I know something about technology. Imagine the parents who don’t know anything and their children are having this problem,” Ruiz said.
Logging into her therapy sessions has been somewhat easier in the last few weeks, Ruiz said.
Internet connection sometimes also has been a problem. Priscila’s older brother Ignacio Gutierrez Ramirez, a junior in high school, is also doing distance learning, and sisters Elena Gutierrez Ramirez, 20, and Elvira Gutierrez Ramirez, 18, are taking online classes through the local community college. Even Ruiz is enrolled in a community college course to work on English as a second language.
One day when Ruiz wasn’t home and Elena was in charge, Priscila’s laptop wouldn’t connect to her class. Elena couldn’t figure out how to make it work, so she drove to the school to get help. Once that problem was fixed, Elena returned home, only to realize the computer now wouldn’t connect to the family Wi-Fi. So she returned to the school to get a new hotspot. By the time she finally got Priscila connected, it was the end of her class.
“My poor daughter ends up so frustrated,” Ruiz said. “I don’t think special education students and English learners are benefiting from this situation. They need to do something different.”
Ruiz has asked the school to simplify the number of applications the students need to use. She would also like distance learning to be designed differently for children with special needs like Priscila.
She would be worried, though, if Priscila returned to school, because she thinks it would be hard to get her daughter and her classmates, who all have special needs, to maintain social distancing.
“They’re not as careful as other children,” Ruiz said. “They’re going to hug each other. They’re going to get close to each other. They’re going to touch each other.”
— Zaidee Stavely
For Miriam Arambula and her daughter, Adaline Curiel, there is a clear difference between distance learning during spring and summer and what it looks like two months into the fall semester.
Teachers have more structure in their lesson plan which “has kept Adi engaged because there’s homework; there’re assignments; and they incorporate it at the home,” said Arambula.
Curiel, a preschooler at the Early Learning Center in Fresno, continued attending online class on her tablet over the summer and her instructors provided weekly teaching guides, but she had trouble seeing her tablet as anything more than fun time. Rather than logging in to Zoom to attend class, she felt it was time to Facetime her teacher and classmates.
Since then, Arambula has checked out a tablet from Curiel’s school, which she uses strictly for class. Her personal tablet is to be used only during school breaks and after school.
“She gets that separation now,” said Arambula, who consulted with Curiel’s father in making the decision to adjust her learning materials. And Curiel has benefited from it — she’s motivated during school, and she gets excited when she learns something new during class.
Despite being more adjusted to distance learning, there are certain parts of this set-up that don’t get easier. A few weeks into the fall semester, Curiel’s class was assigned a new teacher. Both Arambula and Curiel liked her previous teacher, and they didn’t expect yet another change so soon into the semester. It took Curiel some time to grow accustomed to the switch in teachers.
Her previous teacher was also a Spanish speaker, the language Curiel’s family speaks at home. Arambula liked this because it helped Curiel practice her home language. But her new teacher doesn’t speak Spanish, so Curiel must now speak only in English during class. If classes were in-person, this wouldn’t have been an issue, said Arambula. During certain parts of the day, Curiel would have been able to visit other classrooms at her school that have Spanish-speaking teachers. On Zoom, however, she can’t just walk over to another classroom.
Having Curiel attending school from home has made for a complicated schedule involving her father and other family. Curiel’s father adjusted his work schedule to be home with her when she logs on to class every weekday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Once class is over, he leaves for work and his sisters take care of Curiel during the day. On the weekend, she’s back home with Arambula, who is a social worker and has to go to her office every weekday.
They have developed a system that Arambula is grateful for because it allows them to prioritize Curiel’s needs, but she knows everything can change.
“I feel like sometimes we minimize our own worries…but I know I’m not the only parent overwhelmed by thinking like what is tomorrow gonna look like for my kid? What is tomorrow going to look like for my employment? You know, everything changes,” she said. She knows that parents need to self-care “so that your kids are able to feed off of that instead of the bad.”
-Betty Márquez Rosales
About two months into the fall semester, distance learning isn’t any easier at the Guzman household.
“Online classes with my second-grader are a complete and utter failure,” said Mayra Guzman, whose two older children attend Fresno County schools. She hasn’t enrolled her youngest son, Miguel Angel, in preschool this semester because it would be too stressful to have all three of her boys doing distance learning.
Her second-grader, Jose Luis Guzman, struggles to focus during the school day and works best when he has consistent guidance from an adult who can sit with him during class time. But his mom works all day in Fresno’s agricultural fields, leaving for work hours before he wakes and arriving home after school hours.
Without that consistent support during class, he’s the child she worries about the most. Before distance learning, he was a bit behind on reading skills. Now, Guzman sees him falling further behind the longer he’s out of the classroom.
This month, she’ll be attending parent-teacher conferences. Her oldest son, Juan Manuel Guzman, has grown increasingly tired of distance learning and says he isn’t learning anything this year. But at 11 years old, his mom knows he can at least independently maneuver the online platforms his teachers use for instruction. For 7-year-old Jose Luis, however, distance learning has been tough from the very beginning, and she doesn’t expect good remarks from his teachers.
“He doesn’t pay attention — that’s the first complaint they’ll give me,” she said. The learning loss is a direct result of distance learning, but, as a mother, Guzman said she feels partially at fault.
She recalled the years when her oldest son was in elementary school, and she spent every afternoon after work helping him learn how to read, count and write. Her middle child, however, has experienced a divorce and now a pandemic, causing disruptions that have complicated Guzman’s ability to help him in the same way as her oldest son. Those disruptions, she believes, have taken a toll on him and his academics.
“I’m going to say a word that might sound wrong but I feel guilty. I feel miserable,” said Guzman, who shares equal custody with Jose Luis’ father. “You feel frustrated, sometimes impotent because you want to do more but there is no time.”
With shared custody, Jose Luis spends every other week with his father, where the structure and discipline are different from his mother’s home. It’s a disruption that has affected Jose Luis’ studies and sometimes causes him to miss some schoolwork, said Guzman.
To make a tough situation more stressful, it’s sometimes impossible for her to stay up-to-date with the daily notifications from her children’s schools. Last month, for example, she was working in a location for two weeks that left her with no cell signal during work hours. If one of her boys’ schedules changed, as it tends to do for her youngest son’s English Language Development class, she was unaware of the change until after work. By that time, school is usually over, and she couldn’t communicate the changes to her boys.
“I haven’t grown accustomed to this. I don’t like it… they’re not learning, they’re tired of not being able to go anywhere,” she said. “They miss school, they miss playing sports, they miss seeing their friends, they even miss the teachers they didn’t like.”
There is one silver lining to distance learning, said Guzman. Teachers and the district are now within easy reach due to EduText, a phone application for families that facilitates communications between parents and their children’s schools. At least now, she said, her boys can’t get out of completing all of their schoolwork — if they try, she knows she’ll immediately hear about it from their teachers.
-Betty Márquez Rosales
When the internet crashes, so does class time for nine-year-old Colton Reichow during distance learning.
On a recent Monday morning, his mom dropped him off at his grandma’s while she went to a doctor’s appointment. But as he started his online school day, the internet service dropped and grandma didn’t know how to fix it, so Colton missed his class.
On days like these, which aren’t so uncommon in rural Lucerne Valley in San Bernardino County, Colton must make up his school work in the evening before the assignment is due. Even though the assignment won’t be marked as late, he said missing out on class time can be stressful.
“I couldn’t do my schoolwork, so I just hung out with my brother and grandma,” Colton said. “But I want to be on-task and I do want to do what my teacher asks.”
Spotty internet has also been a struggle for Colton’s mom, Sarah Courtney, who is a nursing student and has online classes of her own.
One of the hardest parts about distance learning, she said has been “figuring out how to use all the internet apps, and changing everything when we go from house to house,” said Sarah. “If he goes to my mom’s, I have to reconnect everything over there.”
Courtney said she would love for her son to go back to full five days a week. Currently, Colton’s school is on a hybrid schedule, where he goes to campus two days a week and does online learning for the rest of the week.
“It’s torture for me to make him do his work,” she said in a recent interview with a toddler climbing on her. “I wish he was back the full week. It would be so much easier.”
Some assignments have been less of a struggle than others. One recent social studies assignment had Colton draw a map of California that indicated the state’s different ecosystems. For the project, he used seeds, popcorn, rice and other grains to represent Californa’s coastline, mountain ranges, farmland and deserts.
Colton was proud of the final product. “It took a long time to get them really nice,” he said.
Homeschooling has come with at least one plus: time for projects and learning skills that might not have a place in the traditional classroom.
Colton and his mom have together been renovating a trailer for the family to go on weekend camping trips and motorcycle races in. Since starting the project, Colton has learned how to use an electric sander and other tools. And he loves getting his hands dirty learning how to maintain his motorbike, which he has more time for at home now.
“I learned how to change the oil on my bike and take it apart,” Colton said. “Not a lot of kids can do that.”
What 8-year-old Mariacarmen Martinez likes best about distance learning is drawing. But she wants to go back to school in Oxnard, northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County because she misses playing and jumping rope with her friends.
Her mother Leticia Solano wants her to be able to go back to get more help in reading. As the fall semester progressed, Solano saw her struggle more and more.
“My daughter has fallen really behind,” Solano said in Spanish.
In addition, Solano thinks Mariacarmen is lonely and needs more attention. In October, Solano reached out to the district and enrolled Mariacarmen for an after-school reading group with other third-graders and counseling.
Solano sees all her children struggling to do their schoolwork, and getting easily distracted. While Mariacarmen studies at the dining room table, her brothers, Felipe, 5, and Eusebio, 6, connect to their kindergarten and first grade classrooms from the living room. They have headphones, but they don’t always want to use them. Their 14-year-old cousin, Andrea, who lives with them, does her schoolwork from one of the bedrooms. Solano’s husband is a farmworker, who works long hours in the fields. Solano stays at home with the children.
“I can’t help all three of them at the same time,” Solano said. “I have to be with the youngest.”
Solano’s youngest, Felipe, cries sometimes because he doesn’t want to log into his kindergarten class online. Solano says she has to sit with him to help him pay attention and do the work his teacher asks him to do, like writing words. Since Solano has to focus on him, Eusebio and Mariacarmen have to do their work more independently.
“My first-grader is behind in his schoolwork because it’s all in English,” Solano said.
The family speaks Spanish to each other, and the children are still learning English. Felipe is in a dual-language immersion kindergarten classroom, where the children learn in both English and Spanish, so Solano has an easier time helping him. She said she has trouble helping the older children with their schoolwork, which is all in English.
Solano has also had some trouble communicating with some of her children’s teachers. The school district uses an application to send messages back and forth between parents and teachers that automatically translates from one language to the other. But Solano said she doesn’t have perfect spelling in Spanish, because she stopped attending school in Mexico when she was 9 years old. When she writes a message in Spanish, she said the application sometimes won’t translate her words correctly and the teachers don’t always understand.
If the school reopens, she would send her children back.
“Teachers are more able to help the children,” Solano said. “We parents are just learning how to use technology.”
— Zaidee Stavely
Kerry Martinez has been wearing multiple hats throughout the first months of distance learning in Los Angeles.
Her top priority is making sure learning is going smoothly for her two sons, who attend KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central Los Angeles. So far, Martinez has been mostly satisfied but there have been some bumps in the road, especially for her youngest son, Ian, who is in transitional kindergarten. Her other son, Alexander, is in second grade.
She is also an unofficial liaison between parents and her children’s teachers, helping run a Facebook group to keep parents informed on what they need to know and helping them with distance learning when they need it.
“It’s tiring, especially because I have to manage both kids. I have to constantly be on them to not get distracted, to focus on their school,” she said.
One of the challenges for Martinez is balancing her time between her sons. She does her best to spend equal time monitoring them while they are in classes, but since Ian is in his first year of school, he’s been needing more attention as the semester unfolds.
The more days he attends school via distance learning, the more frustrated he feels. For example, he sometimes gets upset when he wants to answer a question from the teacher but doesn’t get called on.
“He gets angry, and then he doesn’t want to stay focused,” Martinez said. “So I have to basically be his teacher and say, ‘Okay, what answer do you do have?’”
Playing that role is natural for Martinez, who is just two semesters away at Cal State Los Angeles from earning her teaching credential. She took the fall semester off to focus on the needs of her sons during distance learning but plans to return to school next semester.
When she’s not giving her attention to her sons’ classes and schoolwork, Martinez is often helping other parents.
Whenever a teacher or administrator from the school sends any type of communication to families, Martinez promotes those messages in the Facebook group that she helps manage. For example, last month, there was a week when families needed to pick up learning materials from the school and Kerry would post daily reminders in the Facebook group.
She also uses the group to connect with parents and help them as needed.
One parent who has a child in the same class as Ian was recently struggling to complete a homework assignment with her child. The parent is Spanish-speaking and the assignment was on an online platform that was only in English.
Martinez, who is bilingual, set up a video call with the parent and walked her through the assignment.
“She was really frustrated at first, but we did some of the homework together. So she got caught up, and she felt a little bit better,” Martinez said.
Several months into distance learning, fatigue has set in for Shari Abercrombie and her son Ian of West Los Angeles.
Ian, who has special needs, is a fourth-grade student at WISH Charter Elementary. Supervising him has become a full-time job for Abercrombie, who said she feels burnt out and has trouble keeping Ian motivated on a daily basis. She also worries he will lose social skills during a crucial time in his development.
“We are super fortunate that I am able to be his full time caretaker and support him in school. We’re very fortunate for all that we have. But it still is exhausting. It’s tough every single day,” she said.
Some days, Ian has no interest in being in school. In the middle of the school day, he’ll say to Abercrombie that he is “all done.” Sometimes, he’ll get up and lie down on the bed when he’s supposed to be in class.
Abercrombie said she senses that, like her, Ian is growing weary of distance learning. If it were up to him, he would spend all day using his iPad, playing on the family’s trampoline or listening to music.
Abercrombie has tried different strategies to keep him engaged, such as implementing a sticker system. When Abercrombie notices that Ian is focused during class, she gives him a sticker. If he has a certain amount of stickers, she allows him to watch television during his snack time or use his iPad after school.
“I hate using that method, but it’s just what I have to use for now,” Abercrombie said.
Schools in Los Angeles County have the option of resuming some in-person learning for students with special needs, but Ian’s school has yet to do so. Ian has many diagnoses including an enlarged heart, a brain malformation and hydrocephalus, which is the buildup of too much fluid in the brain.
In an ideal world, Abercrombie said she would prefer to send Ian back to a physical classroom, but given infection rates in Los Angeles, she’s not sure she would be comfortable doing that.
“Would I like to have him go back to school? I would love it. Just like everyone else. But it’s not logical right now,” she said.
Because she is able to supervise Ian and monitor his progress, Abercrombie said she isn’t particularly worried that he is suffering any learning loss during distance learning. She is concerned, however, that distance learning could diminish his social skills, especially if he doesn’t return to the classroom at all this year.
Abercrombie said she sees fourth grade as an especially critical point in Ian’s social development.
“The difference between a fourth grader and a fifth grader in development is huge,” she said. “I’m very nervous about what fifth grade socially will look like for him.”
To keep Ian as socially engaged as possible, Abercrombie is trying different things. Every Thursday, one of the school’s special education teachers holds a social break time in the afternoon for kids to socialize with each other, and Ian has begun participating in those.
Additionally, Ian often has one-on-one lessons with a special education paraprofessional. Abercrombie said she has requested that another special education student join the lessons so that Ian has someone to socialize with.
“We’re just starting to make these transitions. But I think it’s going to be helpful,” Abercrombie said.
To keep up in his virtual math class, Charlie Allbritton uses a calculator, a laptop, a tablet, a desktop computer and paper notepad, so he can follow everything the teacher says. Every exponential equation, every logarithm, every trigonometric function.
But it’s not enough. Allbritton, a high school junior who has a learning disability, said he feels hopelessly confused most days. His grade has slipped from a B to a D, and he fears it will slip further.
“Things go a little too fast,” said Charlie, who lives in San Diego. “It’s frustrating, because I want to get a good grade in math. I want to be able to graduate.”
Charlie’s mother, Moira Allbritton, hired a math tutor to help him once a week. And the class has two aides to help students keep up, but virtual tutoring is not as effective as in-person assistance, Charlie said.
The experience has been overwhelming, not just for Charlie but for his family, as well, his mother said. Charlie, who has a brain injury that slows his ability to grasp information, sometimes spends all weekend studying for a quiz, only to get 0 out of 8 correct. Afterwards, he’ll fall into a deep funk.
“He’ll say, ‘Am I dumb?’ or ‘I need to be sharper,’” she said. “He’s crying way more than he did when he was younger. And to be honest, so am I.”
Before school campuses closed, Charlie was in a special education math program that contained the same content as general math, but at a slower pace and with a cohort of only 8 to 10 students. It was easy to concentrate and ask questions. It was part of a program called STARS, which is focused on giving students in special education the academic support needed to graduate.
But the STARS math teacher left and the district was unable to hire a replacement before school started, so Charlie and his classmates were placed in a general math class. Moira and her husband, who’s in the Navy and currently stationed on the East Coast, filed a complaint with the district that it was not fulfilling Charlie’s independent learning program (IEP), and are awaiting a response.
Not all is doom-and-gloom at the Allbritton house. Charlie’s younger sister is thriving with distance learning, and Charlie recently became an Eagle Scout. And as hard as math can be, Charlie refuses to give up.
“The other day I was so upset I wanted to just throw in the towel, and Charlie brought me a little note,” Moira said. “It said, ‘I want to stay in STARS. I want my diploma.’ So we’re going to figure this out.”
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