The First Few Days Of Distance Learning Have Left Me DEEPLY Concerned About Our Most Vulnerable Students

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I thought, and continue to think, that most worries about major “learning loss” due to the emergency school closures last spring were/are way overblown (see Are We Going About This Whole “Distance Learning” Thing All Wrong?).

This year, before our full-time virtual learning system began, I was concerned it was going to be a very different story.

Now, even though it’s been only a few days and I may be “jumping the gun,” I am even more worried that this could be the case.

First off, I need to say that I am not worried about highly-motivated students, like those in our school’s International Baccalaureate program (many of them take my IB Theory of Knowledge class).  As I saw in the spring, they are going to be fine.

Research has “found very little difference in learning for high-performing students in the online and in-person settings.’

Research has also found that “lower performing students performed meaningfully worse in online courses than in in-person courses.” Plenty of other research reinforces those findings.

I also need to say emphatically that I hate the label of “lower performing” when discussing students, just as I hate the phrase “achievement gap” (see The Best Resources For Learning About The “Opportunity Gap” (or “Achievement Gap”) ).  So-called “lower-performing” students often, in fact, have many fewer “opportunities” and experience a higher number of challenges in their lives.  Unfortunately, though, many studies continue to use that phrase to inaccurately describe them.

Though I haven’t found much research on how distance learning affects English Language Learners,  I really can’t imagine many people disputing that it will likely have a negative impact on them.  As a Spanish-language learner, I can’t imagine learning it effectively online as a child twice-each week (that’s the official schedule of our district’s classes, with an additional very short class on Mondays).

I think that the ELLs at our school are likely to be fine because, in addition to their other twice-each-week ELL classes from other teachers at our school who are very talented, I’m teaching my two classes five times a week, plus many of them are in my TOK classes.

Despite our district’s lip-service on equity issues, though, I’m not actually getting paid to do those extra classes – I’m teaching them because, as I jokingly say, “I don’t have a life” – our kids are out of the house and I have an extremely supportive spouse.  Plus, I have an exceptionally talented student teacher.

I’m not sure how many other ELLs attend schools in similar situations.

I also need to say that, in spite of my snarky comment about our district (our teachers union is engaged in very public battle with our Superintendent right now – see School resumes Tuesday. But Sacramento district, teachers union won’t agree on a schedule), not having another federal stimulus package from the federal government is impacting all districts, including our own, and could have a role in limiting the amount of extra support they can provide vulnerable student populations.

Students with special needs are also obviously taking – and will continue to take – a huge hit, despite the best efforts of so many dedicated special ed teachers (who sometimes are unfairly told, as they were in a Zoom meeting sponsored by our district last week, that “you have a lot to make up for from the spring.”).

Though I think daily engaging classes with ELLs can effectively mitigate many of the challenges presented by distance learning, I honestly don’t really have any idea what, if anything, more schools can do to assist students with special needs.  I would love to hear ideas from readers.

Now we get to what may be the largest vulnerable student population – those who are fairly disengaged from school, have fewer academic skills, and face substantial socio-economic challenges – those who suffer from the opportunity gap that I discussed earlier.

For many, even if there were enough teachers to do it, adding more and longer Zoom classes are not going to work – they might not be motivated to participate – partially, perhaps, because they might not have the necessary supports to be successful in the academic work they are being asked to do; they might not be able to participate because of having to care for younger siblings or because they have to work to support their families during the recession; and/or they and their families face other factors that affect their academic achievement (remember, research has consistently found that teachers can only impact a quarter of those factors – see The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher (& Outside Factors) Have On Student Achievement).

What might work, though, are interventions based on relationships (see “Individual Meetings” Are THE Building Blocks Of A Successful Community Organization & They Can Be The Same In A Distance Learning Classroom).  For example, a tutoring program that is relationship-based (see Getting tutoring right to reduce COVID-19 learning loss from Brookings).

That will take money – lots of it.  England is funding a similar program.

Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath that the Trump Administration would do the same. And, if the next stimulus package does come through, I think most districts will need it just to maintain what they’re doing now – not to add something new. One proposal to mount an effort here would cost $16 billion over three years.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, though, there might be hope to get it done.

I hope so.