Silicon Valley schools scramble to close enduring gaps during COVID-19
Photo courtesy of Alum Rock Union School District.

When Bay Area schools closed overnight in mid-March, Miyuki Takeda-Bajan’s daughter couldn’t afford to take time off from her studies — she had an upcoming SAT exam and AP courses. But direction from the school district was slow to arrive.

The junior at Pioneer High School in San Jose’s Blossom Valley scoured the web for free testing materials and used a college prep book to devise her own curriculum for the week.

“We didn’t wait,” Takeda-Bajan said. “Considering this was such an extraordinary situation, (school districts) needed time to figure out what they were going to do. But I was also thinking, ‘this is an emergency — what would they have done in other emergencies?'”

Indeed, educators were scrambling across the state, and with no clear guidelines, parents and teachers were frustrated, struggling to meet their children’s academic needs as school districts rushed to put together a framework for the months ahead.

And as California schools transition to distance learning due to the novel coronavirus, the districts already facing achievement gaps are struggling more than ever. In some of Santa Clara County’s most diverse school districts — where at least a third of the students speak a language other than English or are low-income — the stakes are higher for families without Internet access or computers.

“The transition has definitely been difficult,” said Kristiina Arrasmith, a bilingual third grade teacher for San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) adding that language barriers and no in-person support pose new challenges for many immigrant families. “I think about my own students and some are having radically different experiences than others in my class. It was already true, but now that’s being exacerbated.”

Alicia Jandres, a mother of two daughters who attend Walter Bachrodt Elementary, said she felt helpless when she couldn’t reach their teachers when the closures began. She doesn’t speak English well and relies on them to help communicate.

“It was really frustrating, I’m incapable of helping my daughters,” Jandres said. “I’m saddened that they are asking me to explain homework and I can’t provide that.”

But teachers like Arrasmith were told not to talk to parents until the school district gave the go-ahead.

“I was initially told not to send home anything, not to reach out to my students, not to send out any assignments,” Arrasmith added. “I could understand not needing to do these things, but being told not to was really disappointing to me.”

SJUSD officials said they didn’t send out coursework because they didn’t expect to be closed for more than a couple weeks. For many districts, balancing public health concerns against the educational needs of students wasn’t an easy task.

“We are always trying to address that we want the best education for everybody within our school district,” said Lili Smith, a spokesperson for SJUSD. “When COVID-19 started, our top priority has been and remains the safety and health of everybody: our students, our staff, our community.”

To provide some guidance, SJUSD offered an “optional” learning schedule for parents to follow, posted online resources and sent an email survey, which contained information about obtaining a computer. But many couldn’t access the form online, including some who needed those devices, said education advocate Kristen Brown, who chairs SJUSD’s community advisory committee for special education.

The approaches to education varied as administrators and teachers adjusted to a new normal.

Distance learning began as early as the first week at Franklin-Mckinley School District, with teachers sending their students home with paper homework packets. But also as late as April 8 for SJUSD teachers who conduct classes with videoconferencing and assign assignments through Google Classroom.

Online learning was implemented in the first week at Campbell Union and Milpitas Unified.

Gloria McGriff, a teacher at Capri Elementary School in Campbell Union, which has about 7,000 students, said she uses Pear Deck, a program where students answer questions in real-time. Milpitas Unified, with nearly 10,000 students, uses tools such as i-Ready, where parents track their child’s reading and math skills.

Still, the varied start dates and approaches concerned education advocates.

“There are certainly no easy answers,” said Silvia Scandar Mahan, regional vice president of Innovate Public Schools, a local nonprofit that helps low-income students. “But what we’ve seen is that parents have not been invited to express their opinion about the way things have been communicated or about the implementation of distance learning.”

Digital Divide 

But beyond the process is the question of tools. Takeda-Bajan said her daughter wouldn’t have been able to continue her studies without a laptop, adding that she couldn’t imagine how families without them were coping at home.

In the hub of Silicon Valley, the abrupt shift from the classroom to an online setting separates the families who have computers from those who do not. Even one computer may not be enough if multiple family members need to use it, worrying education advocates that students who can’t engage with online learning will fall behind.

“If there’s only one computer in the home (and) the family is so dependent on it for the parents’ work, it’s not accessible by a student,” Brown said.

The gaps between student need and resources remain stark.

At SJUSD, nearly half of its close to 30,000 students are considered low-income and 500 Chromebooks have been distributed in the district.The district is rolling out an additional 1,200 Chromebooks this week. Next door, at Milpitas Unified, about 30 percent the school’s 10,000 students are low-income and 1,200 devices have been divvied out, according to state and district data.

Franklin-McKinley, where more than 85 percent of its 7,000 students are low-income, has distributed 2,000 devices. Of the approximately 7,000 students at Campbell Union, 43 percent are considered low income and the district has provided 855 computers to its families, the data show.

Smith said SJUSD computers are prioritized for high school seniors, as resources are running low but they are now advising parents to contact their school principals if they need assistance with obtaining a computer or hotspot device.

Despite those resources, Internet access or computer literacy remains an issue.

Before campuses closed, Jandres’ daughters used computers at school. While the school district provided her with a computer, she struggled with online learning because she previously didn’t own a computer and learning how to use one was challenging.

“Even if schools come up with brilliant distance learning plans and even if they can get Chromebooks or iPads or other devices out to every student, those devices don’t help if the families don’t have Internet access,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said.

Nearly 1.2 million California families do not have access to the Internet, according to state education leaders. In a recent poll, 9 in 10 parents in California reported feeling worried about their children falling behind academically. The poll surveyed 1,200 parents and showed that half of low-income families said they did not have a computer at home, while 40 percent didn’t have Internet access.

To provide more support to families in need, regional and city leaders are stepping up to bridge the digital divide. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office is helping school districts provide more resources through the city’s Digital Inclusion Fund, where families can apply for devices.

Google announced it will donate 4,000 Chromebooks to California students and free WiFi to 100,000 students in rural areas. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act also gives California more than $1.5 million for schools to purchase computers and hotspots.

“Now that we’re getting some traction and making some moves on distance learning, what’s the plan to make up for lost time and to make up for the fact that remote learning isn’t as good as in classroom learning?” Scandar Mahan said. “We need a plan… to catch up the students who are already behind.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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