The Data on Virtual Learner Engagement During COVID-19

Due to the pandemic, classroom instruction is now virtual. Learning is to take place at home for school age children across the U.S., with few exceptions. Learners in New York City public schools have been mandated to receive their academic instruction via remote learning platforms. Requiring wifi access and devices to receive this instruction, not all students have guaranteed access to learning.

Those students who do have access to the tools they need to logon to their classrooms, aren’t all doing so. Since last Spring, when instruction first became via remote, the numbers of students who have actively engaged appears to be discouragingly low. A middle grades learner whom I have been tutoring during this time, told me that among his classmates, only 4 or 5 students have been logging in for class on a daily basis.

little girl taking online classes

Perhaps it is naive of me to assume that the transition to remote learning would have been a smooth and seamless one. A convenient transition for students,teachers and families alike. My assumptions couldn’t possibly have been mine alone. Surely, educators believed the same thing, as well. Otherwise, appropriate plans would have been made. The reality has demonstrated differently, grossly confounding these assumptions.

Planning remote instruction, for schools, was done quickly, not comprehensively conceived or strategized in alignment with needs or circumstances of their populations. We have left previously existing barriers to learning unaddressed. These barriers continue to pose problems for learners, block access to instruction and impact their levels of engagement. So many students are struggling, as are their parents. Who are these students? They are those with disabilities, in temporary housing, language learners, and those who live in low income communities. Primarily, children of color in New York City.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, about 185,000 school-age kids in New York City have no broadband internet at home, and half of those have no internet access at all. Another 75,000 have internet access but no device available to them.

The Education Department counted multiple interactions with school: a student’s submission of an assignment, participation in an online chat, or even just a response to a call or email — any form of communication from the family.

Even by this limited measure of engagement, English language learners, students in temporary housing and students with disabilities all engaged at lower rates than others during the all-remote part of the spring semester. Faring worst of all in terms of interaction were students who were either in temporary housing or doubling up with another family. Among this group, on average 20% failed to make any contact with school whatsoever. While there was no specific breakdown of students in foster care or in juvenile detention facilities, it’s probably a safe bet that these students make up a good number of that 20%.

If the findings from this new report by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York[CCC] is any indication of the nation’s total student population, then we must all act swiftly so as to not continue to fail our children. We must collectively identify, acknowledge and address the numerous factors that are severely impacting youngsters’ ability to learn and make progress through the academic offerings provided by our school systems.

LEA[local education authority] and SEAs[state education authorities] need to advocate for its students. Beginning at the community school level, going to the state and then federal levels of government,  it is time to lobby for equity. In fact, demands need to be made, appealing to internet and cable service providers, as well as businesses that manufacture computers and other devices now required of learners. Children need fully operational devices at home and families need internet access. Both are to be deemed essential services.

man in yellow polo shirt sitting on chair

 

It is clear that education outcomes are directly impacted by social realities. These realities inform us that the inequities that exist in the greater society have great influence on what happens in school and public education, specifically. The framework of public education is that any child, from anywhere will benefit from the knowledge and tools acquired in school. 

Separate has never been equal in education.  Even though they are still highly segregated, for PreK-12 children enrolled in public schools, learning opportunities are supposed to be equal and equitable. There has to be one standard prerequisite condition, for all. Now that learning is to take place in the home, every child, in every family, no matter their economic status or race, is to be equally minimally equipped to learn. The tools needed today are different from yesterday. Not just paper and pencil or books; children need access to devices and technology, right where they are-in those spaces they call home.

Among the other things that affect healthy growth and learning, these are the ‘new’  21st Century basics that haven’t received sufficient attention until now. Hopefully, as our eyes are more open, we rise to the occasion, seize the moment, and  begin to understand that learning does not happen in a vacuum. Without the tools needed for learning and academic achievement, neither students nor their families will actively engage with schools or the educators who are the facilitators of learning, to achieve the best potential outcomes through frameworks built on the principles of equity.