Distance learning threatens to widen educational disparities – Mission Local


Juana Rodriguez and her youngest child, Rosa, visited Everett Middle School for the first time on Tuesday, the second day of school for San Francisco United School District  students.  

Rather than an exciting tour of Rosa’s new stomping grounds followed by an emotional farewell, the two went on a rather unceremonious walk through the schoolyard to claim a loaner ipad and some school supplies for the new sixth-grader. Rosa stops at a cart full of books that the school’s librarian has brought out to give away to students. She asks if there are any books in Spanish, and the librarian says no. 

“She was nervous as we walked up. We’re all nervous for this start, honestly. I hope it goes well,” Rodriguez said. 

While Rodriguez is hoping for the best, she is also prepared for the worst. 

And, she should be. Crowded spaces, failing attention spans and inadequate technology all conspire to make the school year particularly difficult for the district’s estimated 28,500 socioeconomically disadvantaged students including some 2,000 unhoused. Already existing disparities, parents and teachers fear, will only increase. And those disparities are stark:  Only 28.4 percent of Black high school students and 37.9 percent of Latinx students were prepared for college or a career, compared to the 70.7 percent of white students who were prepared, according to the district’s dashboard.   

Most SFUSD students will start  school later in the day and end earlier.  Much of their so-called school day may not involve direct interaction with a teacher.

On a district-wide level, teachers are only obligated to provide a minimum of two hours of synchronous teaching, according to a SFUSD distance learning guide.

Synchronous learning means students are engaging with teachers in real time, usually through a video meeting like Zoom, or a phone call. Asynchronous learning means students are not directly interacting with their teachers or classmates. 

“This may be through a prerecorded video, web based lessons, or a series of self paced assignments” states the learning guide. 

When schools first transitioned to virtual learning in March, Rodriguez adapted. She did what many parents do when spread thin, relied more on her oldest. The 18-year-old, then in his last semester of high school, helped his two younger siblings get into zoom sessions, taught them how to turn in assignments, and made himself available for all of their online questions while also dealing with his own final semester. 

If Rodriguez was called to work, she left one child with her oldest at home and took the other with her. That way both youngsters were being looked after and kept apart so they wouldn’t distract each other. 

Last week, however, her oldest moved to North Carolina to start college.

Now, when Rodriguez is called in to work, she must leave one of her children at home alone and simply hope they focus on school work. Even when she is home, Rodriguez has trouble verifying that her kids are on task. 

“I don’t know much about computers, so I don’t know whether they’re actually doing their work or if they’re just messing around.”  Rodriguez said. 

This uncertainty is also felt on the other side of the screen, according to Luis Vidalon-Suzuki, a second-year math teacher at John O’Connell High School. 

“With online learning, it’s hard to tell if students are paying attention or if they even understand the material,” Vidalon-Suzuki said. 

The new teacher says he often relies on body language to identify students who are struggling with the course work, but that becomes much more difficult when he can only see from the computer’s perspective. It also becomes very easy, he says, for students to simply open another tab and goof off. Their eyes are still facing the screen, so it’s nearly impossible to tell. 

This, of course, assumes that students can even access the technology necessary to get into class, such as laptops with cameras and reliable internet access.

Last week, almost 10,000 students picked up devices loaned out by SFUSD, and 1,800 picked up internet hotspots, according to SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. 

Even with the necessary tools for distance learning, some students may not be in the optimal environment for learning. The district’s distance learning guide encourages parents to, “Make a list of the different tasks (reading, writing, laptop, etc) then help your child pick two good places for each. Find a space that is well-lit and quiet.” 

Many parents do not have enough space in their homes for their students to have their own space, much less two. 

Marta Flores is a mother of 4. Her eldest daughter is in college and then she has students in second, sixth and 11th grades.  

Flores usually sits with her youngest in the dining room, with her two middle children attending class in the room they share. Luckily, the oldest moved out for college, otherwise she says it would be much harder for them to share the space. 

And school is only one of Flores’s concerns. 

On the day she spoke with Mission Local, she was at Cesar Chavez Elementary School waiting in a line that stretched from the middle of Folsom Street to 22nd Street. 

The SFUSD distance learning guide promises “SFUSD students can access 5 days’ worth of meals (including breakfast, lunch, supper, fresh fruits and vegetables, & milk).” 

Unfortunately, Flores says, the food isn’t enough. Flores goes to Cesar Chavez Elementary every week to pick up three food bags, one for each of her children currently enrolled in SFUSD. 

She says if her kids relied on the food given, it would only last two or three days. In total, Flores estimates that she only saves herself $15 a week for all three bags. 

Melissa Daar Carvajal, president of the Mission High School PTSA, said that even with educators, parents and students doing their best, virtual classrooms are no comparison to the real thing. 

“Everybody wants a really good school system but we understand that without a significant funding boost, it’s unrealistic to expect everything to slip into place,” Carvajal said. 

Carvajal, whose twin sons are juniors at Mission High School, also acknowledged that while this drastic change in schooling seems to be going well from her perspective, that may not be the case for those with less space at home, or those with younger students that are unfamiliar with much of the new technology, and for those who do not have the luxury of working from home. 

“The people who usually have the most challenges will continue to have the most challenges, the people usually with the least challenges will continue to have the least challenges,” Carvajal said. 

And in that sense, some things have not changed for this school year.

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