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Thousands Of NC Students Slip Through Remote Learning Cracks

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Schools across North Carolina are using buses to bring remote-learning devices to students.

When people talk about what the coronavirus has done to North Carolina schools, you’ll generally hear some variation on this statement by Gov. Roy Cooper: "School classrooms may be closed, but the learning is not over."

And then you’ll hear something like this from Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Elyse Dashew: "We’ve got to work together, more than we ever have before, to help these kids who could so easily slip through the cracks."

Despite Herculean efforts by educators, parents and community volunteers to convert schools and homes to online instruction, it's clear that thousands of students are being left behind.

But figuring out how many, where they are and how to reach them is challenging. Even in normal times, families move without notifying schools and students pile up unexcused absences.

Now everything is upended.

Can They Log On?

One basic measure of access to remote learning is an internet connection. In late April, state Board of Education Chair Eric Davis responded to a question about how many students are being left out of remote instruction by talking about devices and Wi-Fi. About 300,000 students are still lacking on that measure, he said.

Credit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
A CMS driver delivers Chromebooks to make sure students stay connected during the coronavirus closing.

"Every day school buses are rolling across our state delivering instructional materials to students who do not have internet connectivity, who do not have reliable internet connectivity, and then returning back to school with the results of the previous day’s lesson," Davis said.

Consider Union County, which includes Charlotte suburbs with great internet access and rural areas without. School board Chair Melissa Merrell says many students and teachers can’t log on from home to communicate or do online instruction.

"We have extended the broadband at all of our schools so that if you do live in an area that you cannot get service you can drive up to your school, refresh your computer, download everything," Merrell said.

Can Schools Find Them?

But there’s an even more basic indicator of connection: Can schools make any kind of contact with their students?

"We have actually had trouble tracking down some of our students," Merrell said.

As of April 24, five weeks into the shutdown, Union County had reached 84% of students. With enrollment of just over 42,000, that means the district had not reached more than 6,700 students. And there’s no way to know if they’re still in the county, let alone whether they’re safe and learning.

"Students may have gone to live with another relative while their parents are working," Merrell said.

In Charlotte, a group of educators, parents and advocates known as the Westside Education Think Tank started discussing that challenge in early April. They realized some schools, such as J.T. Williams Secondary Montessori School, had faculty going out to knock on doors.

Band director Michael T. Sanders is one of them. He says he's gone to students' homes to deliver sheet music and instruments. He says his school has reached all students, but it's not clear that they're staying on track with academics.

Sanders says faculty members have focused on "making sure that our students are fine, making sure that their mental state is positive, and we’ve not been focused too much on the actual, you know, work aspect of it."

Are They Safe?

Shamaiye Haynes, a parent and Westside Education Think Tank leader, says not all schools are sending people out to make contact.

"Some people are afraid to go out and knock on a family’s door," Haynes said after the meeting with educators, "and so their school has taken more of a conservative approach: 'Eventually they’ll turn up.'"

Haynes wrote to school board members suggesting CMS needed a systemwide approach: Start with a letter and eventually enlist the Department of Social Services for home visits.

"We can’t assume that every child who’s come up not checked in is in an abusive situation," she said, "yet we know that people, when they’re abusing children, even under normal circumstance, they may not send their child to school because of bumps and bruises."

The district couldn’t require teachers and other school staff members to visit homes and risk coronavirus spread, Dashew said.

"We hadn’t really pushed for that earlier because of the social distancing measures," she said in late April. "We really want to make sure that our employees have plenty of masks and protective equipment."

Last week CMS asked all schools for a list of students they haven’t been able to reach. By week’s end there were about 3,000 students on the “zero contact list” – about 2% of the district’s 147,000 students. This week central office staffers are going out in pairs to visit those homes.

Are They Learning?

The basic data points – who’s been contacted and who has internet access – still don’t answer the bigger question: Who’s learning and who’s falling behind?

Ken Lindholm teaches history at Gastonia's Ashbrook High, and he's worried. He says he and fellow teachers determined that about 90% of their students have internet access, but that's only part of the picture.

"We have about, you know, anywhere from 30 to 50% participation of actually coming to the online classes," he said. "About half of that actually turn in assignments, or part of the assignments that were given to them."

Lindholm says he spends about a third of each 90-minute class checking in to make sure everyone’s OK. And he says the lively discussion that’s essential to learning history just doesn’t happen in online forums.

Ashbrook is a high-poverty school, but Lindholm warns against assuming that only so-called at-risk kids are losing ground.

"I have students that have very tough situations that are showing up to class and doing assignments, and I have students that have perfect home situations and have all the technology in the world and are doing nothing," Lindhold said. "So it’s hard to take a big paintbrush and say, 'Well, this group’s doing great and that group’s not.'"

Cheryl Turner is head of Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte, where most students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. She offers a grim assessment of next year’s challenge.

"As far as what students are going to get out of this year, the kids we can’t find and even the ones who are participating, we are taking the attitude that we’re teaching two grades in every grade next year, except kindergarten," Turner said.

Turner says if she can’t get students to master two years’ material – in a year where the pandemic may still prove disruptive – they may fall irrevocably behind.

So far the state has approved an early start in August and money for “jump-start” summer programs for elementary school students. But can schools protect a generation of students against long-term academic scars? That’s the challenge for the coming months.

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