Leeron Tal Dvir’s older son, Micah, is excelling in his 5th-grade classes at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. In fact, he’s performing even better than he had during in-person classes.
But when her younger son, Liam, had classes online at Thomas Edison Elementary School last semester, he cried every day. “I hate fake school,” the 1st-grader would tell her.
Dvir hired a tutor to assist him in his distance learning lessons, and this semester she pivoted him fully to home schooling after building a classroom in her garage. Having someone to work closely with her son, the single mother said, helped immensely.
“I think a lot of parents are really struggling mentally,” Dvir said. “I think it is the school’s responsibility to make sure the families are doing all right. We’re all of a sudden responsible for having school in our homes. We didn’t sign up for that.”
Some students have done well in the distance learning format. However, as a few parents told the Leader, many are still struggling almost a year after the pandemic emptied classrooms.
These parents had a variety of concerns, but many shared a belief that the quality of their children’s education in the Burbank Unified School District had worsened. Some pointed out that their younger kids don’t remain engaged, or even present, during class, while others worried that their children are missing out on social and emotional development built in a classroom environment.
Students will attend school through screens for the foreseeable future, with the teachers’ unions reluctant to return instructors to classrooms and public health departments still grappling with the pandemic surge. There is some hope with vaccinations and falling coronavirus case rates, but though teachers will be in the next group to receive vaccines, officials are worried about an adequate supply of doses.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently that there is little evidence that in-person schooling contributes to community transmission of the virus when precautions are taken, and a recent study from the Stanford University-affiliated Policy Analysis for California Education found that learning loss has been significant for students in the earlier grades, particularly for low-income students and English language learners.
Parental fatigue is real.
“It’s hell,” said Dianne Burke, whose children attend Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School and Jordan Middle School. “They’re not getting the same quality of education. No way. If the parent doesn’t supplement the education, it doesn’t happen.”
Several parents said that students, particularly in elementary and middle school, are apt to get distracted or avoid doing homework. And because teachers aren’t there in person to watch them or help them after class, they can often get away with it. Burke also pointed out that parents who work during school hours are at a particular disadvantage. She has time to supervise her children; other parents don’t.
“You have to give your kids a house and food over school right now,” she said. “That’s the way it is.”
The results of distance learning can be mixed, said BUSD Superintendent Matt Hill. “We have some students [for whom] that mode of learning works well. We’ve seen an increase in students receiving A’s, but at the same time we’ve seen an increase in students receiving Fs.”
The shift in grades received in fall 2020 compared with fall 2019, he added, was significant. In several BUSD schools, a higher percentage of students received A’s in fall 2020, with the increase varying from 2-7%. But a higher percentage of students also received Fs compared with fall 2019; a lower portion of students received middling grades such as Bs and Cs.
Michael Shaw, an 11th-grader at Burroughs High, said that distance learning has been easier than attending classes in-person, but has had its drawbacks. Asking questions or presenting a project in front of the class during a video call is awkward, he explained, and he feels like information goes in one ear and out the other.
“It’s kind of just tiring to look at a screen all day,” he said. “Even in class, nobody has their camera on.”
SOCIAL INTERACTION LIMITED
Shaw added that, because the pandemic prevents him from safely seeing his friends in person, he feels that he’s lost some of his confidence in social situations. In fact, besides being concerned for his health, he fears returning to in-person classes because he would have to interact with others again.
Livia Wei, who has a child at McKinley Elementary and another at Jordan Middle School, fears that distance learning will have a similar effect on her kids, preventing them from gaining crucial social and emotional development. In particular, she worries that her children aren’t learning conflict resolution.
“It is so easy to just turn off your phone right now or turn off your Chromebook if you don’t want to deal with it,” Wei said. “To me, nothing is more valuable than being in that situation and having to deal with it face to face.”
Licensed therapists Karissa Provost and Taylor Foxhall, who are also directors at Burbank nonprofit Family Services Agency, acknowledged that many parents have fears similar to Wei’s. Though they emphasize that every child is different, they said that many students referred to them by BUSD schools are struggling with the social isolation of distance learning.
But they added that the district’s partnership with FSA and its emphasis on mental health can provide some support to parents who are concerned, encouraging families to call the nonprofit about using its counseling services.
“While that is a concern,” Provost said of students missing out on development, “kids are pretty resilient, and when things open up someday, with the right support, we’re pretty confident that they will not miss a beat.”
TEACHERS FACE CHALLENGES
Despite their grievances with distance learning, parents often voiced their respect for their children’s teachers. Hill explained that much of the control in the classroom is usually delegated to the instructors, who, like students, have had to quickly adapt to the distance learning format.
But, Wei said, some teachers can’t cover as much material as they normally could.
“They’re given a fork to dig a hole the size of a football field,” she said. “They’re doing as much as they can, but they can only do so much.”
Luci Bowers, who teaches language arts at Jordan Middle School and has three children in the school district, explained that keeping children engaged through a video call is a challenge. She’s learned to keep the class constantly progressing, but even when the lesson is over, she has grading and planning to do.
“We’re drowning in work,” Bowers said. “I’m working more now than I have ever as a teacher. There seems to be no end to the workday or workweek.”
She also said that attendance and participation policies depend on the teacher’s expectations. In her class, students having trouble with their cameras have to remain responsive through voice or text chat.
Teachers are making a “Herculean” effort, said Jennifer Meglemre, principal of Jordan, to get students to seek help via online office hours or a Zoom meeting. More students than usual are missing assignments, she added, acknowledging that parental supervision is needed to ensure that students are completing their tasks.
“It’s also much easier for the kids to just hit that one button and log out of the class, and there’s nothing you can do,” Meglemre said. “And of course, the students’ grades are reflecting it, all of the missing work. … If the parents aren’t home, if there’s nobody there, there’s just no accountability and the students blow it off.”
Some of the issues students are facing are particularly pronounced for children whose families don’t have access to digital resources or who are learning English as a second language.
Meglemre explained, for example, that one of her 6th-grade teachers instructs students in both a gifted program and a class for English-language learners. The kids in the former group have perfectly working cameras and often their own computers. But many students in the latter class are using Chromebooks borrowed from the school. The devices often struggle to run necessary programs like Zoom.
“Everything takes so much longer for the student to do their work, [even] just [web] pages to load,” she said. “It takes them twice as long as a student who has better technology.”
But distance learning has been beneficial for some students. Robert Romero said his son, who attends John Muir Middle School and has attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, has received better grades now than he did when learning in-person.
Romero works nights and sleeps during the morning while his wife works mornings, so they’re not able to hover over their son during class periods. But Romero said distance learning has allowed the couple to monitor their son’s assignments and check on him after school.
“It’s hard to fathom anyone in a better position than us,” Romero said. However, he added that he feels too many teachers assume students are telling the truth about whether they’ve completed tasks. “This whole thing is a step backward until they improve accountability on academics and physical activity.”
Bowers said that though academic expectations differ depending on the teacher, she is more lenient on some points. For example, quality standards have remained the same, but her late work policy is much looser than it was before the pandemic to account for the challenges of technical glitches or working parents.
And, she added, the gap in families’ resources is nothing new.
“There have always been parents who just have more ability to help out with their student during the school day than others, but now it just becomes more clear,” she said. “We see it more now that we’re depending on [students] being able to do so much that relies on parent support.”
PARENTS, DISTRICT WEIGH RETURN
Many parents said that they would send their children to attend in-person classes if they had the choice, even during the present surge in COVID-19 cases. But that possibility appears distant. Though Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged additional funding for schools that offer in-person learning starting in mid-February, Los Angeles County’s rate of new coronavirus cases is far below what is needed for districts to reopen.
“The hope and goal with the vaccine and additional support [is that] we can have more of an in-person environment,” Hill said. “But … it depends on health conditions, and that’s what’s been guiding us the whole time.”
The BUSD has committed to distance learning through the rest of the school year, but a small number of special education students have returned to campuses for in-person support, Hill explained, an initiative he hopes to gradually expand.
Currently, L.A. County is allowing schools to return some students to campus, such as those with disabilities, who are English language learners or who have needs that can’t be met by virtual learning, though the number of students on campus can’t exceed 25% of the student body.
But while his son could be eligible to return to campus, Romero said he wouldn’t send him, citing both health concerns and the close parental supervision available with distance learning.
And as a teacher, Bowers applauded the district for keeping her and her colleagues home. “I feel like it’s worth it to have a little more work to do from home than to have the added stress and concern and worry about my physical health,” she said. “And the same goes for the kids. I know they all want to be back, but we want it to be the right way — when we can be together and not be scared of each other.”
Dvir pointed to her own decision to have her younger son home-schooled. “This is what we’re given,” she said, “and if it’s really not working, you’ve got to get creative and figure out [changes] so our kids aren’t suffering.”
But for Burke, there’s only one option: return students to campus. “I think that at the end of the day, years from now, we’ll go down in history [saying] the schools’ closing was a bad decision,” she said.