The Pauline Rojas High School in San Antonio is open. But like many of her classmates, she hasn’t come back and has little interest in doing so.
During the coronavirus pandemic, she started working 20 to 40 hours per week at Raising Cane’s, a fast food restaurant, and used that money to help pay her family’s internet bill, buy clothes and save for a car.
Ms. Rojas, 18, has no doubts that a year of online school, stuck between shifts that end at midnight, has affected her learning. Still, she embraced her new role of breadwinner, sharing responsibilities with her mother who works in a hardware store.
“I wanted to relieve my mom from stress,” she says. “I am no longer a child. I am able to have a job, to have a job and to earn my own money.
Only a small slice of American schools remain completely closed: 12% of elementary and middle schools, according to a federal survey, as well as a minority of high schools. But the percentage of distance learning students is much higher: over a third of fourth and eighth graders, and an even larger group of high school students. A majority of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American students are out of school.
These disparities have put district leaders and policy makers in a difficult position as they finish this school year and plan for the next. Even though the pandemic appears to be under control in the United States as vaccinations continue, many superintendents say fear of the coronavirus itself is no longer the main reason their students are withdrawing. Many families also do not express a strong preference for distance learning.
On the contrary, for every child and parent who jumped at the chance to return to class, others have changed their lives in the past year in ways that made it difficult to go back to school. The consequences are likely to reverberate through the education system for years to come, especially if states and districts continue to give students the choice to attend distance school.
Adolescents from low-income families have taken on heavy paid workloads, especially because many parents have lost their jobs. Parents have made new childcare arrangements to get through the long months of school closings and part-time hours, and they are now reluctant to disrupt established routines. Some families are unaware that local public schools have reopened due to language barriers or the districts’ lack of effective communication.
Experts coined the term “academic hesitation” to describe the remarkably enduring resistance to a return to traditional learning. Some wonder if the pandemic has simply upended people’s choices about how to live, with the place of schooling – like the office workplace – now up for grabs. But others see the phenomenon as a social and educational crisis for children that must be tackled – a challenge akin to vaccine hesitancy.
“There are so many stories, and they’re all heartbreaking stories,” said Pedro Martinez, the San Antonio schools superintendent, who said it was very difficult to bring teens back to schools. classrooms in his low-income, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Half of high school students are eligible to return to school five days a week, but only 30% have chosen to. Concerned about markup and the risk of student dropout, he plans to significantly restrict access to distance learning next year.
“I don’t want to keep opening this Pandora’s box,” he said.
As of March, half of black and Hispanic children and two-thirds of Asian-American children were enrolled in remote schools, compared to 20% of white students, according to the latest federal data. While most district leaders and decision-makers believe the classroom is the best place for children and adolescents to learn, many are reluctant to put pressure on families who have had a traumatic year.
A further complication is continued opposition to full-time, in-person learning from some teachers and district officials, with unions arguing that widespread immunization of educators, and soon adolescents as well, does not eliminate the need for physical distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to counsel three to six feet away in schools. In this context, retiring students create the space to serve students who prefer to be in person.
At the same time, distance learning is a staffing challenge for districts. In some, such as San Antonio, it is common for teachers to simultaneously instruct students remotely and in person, via a live video feed from the classroom to the students at home. In others, such as New York City, unions have objected to teachers doing both at the same time, making it difficult to fully staff classes.
And in New York City and several other cities where many teachers have received medical accommodations to work from home, some students in classrooms have been urged to connect to distance learning platforms to interact with students. teachers in other places, which led families to conclude that there was little benefit to being inside the building and increasing churn rates. Districts that offer distance learning next school year could outsource the work to stand-alone online schools, which would allow their own teachers to return to the buildings. But for many months now, some education and children’s health experts have warned of the social and academic consequences of prolonged distance learning.
“It is not acceptable that we have a two-tier education system in which white children disproportionately attend face-to-face school, and students of color disproportionately attend online school,” he said. said Vladimir Kogan, political scientist at Ohio State University.
Professor Kogan’s research found that parents are more likely to be reluctant to learn in person if their children’s schools were closed for a longer period of time, which was more likely to be the case in urban districts with a liberal who serve large numbers of non-whites. students. The reluctance was caused less by fear of the coronavirus and more by messages from school districts about whether in-person learning was safe and desirable, Professor Kogan found.
Many governors, mayors, school boards and superintendents are still wondering whether families should continue to have the option of virtual schooling this fall. But a February survey of educators found 68% expected their systems to offer a range of distance learning options even after the pandemic was over.
As long as the remote school option remains, direct family outreach is the best way to attract students to traditional classrooms, educators say.
In Indianapolis public schools, 20 percent of students continue to take distance learning, a lower percentage than in many other urban districts. The district made 1,000 home visits over two days in April to check on children who had been chronically absent during the pandemic, sometimes encouraging them to resume in-person learning.
Antoinette Austin, the district social services coordinator, visited a boy who was living with an aunt. She did not speak English and did not know that her nephew’s school had reopened. Several other families needed help arranging transportation to get their children to school, Ms Austin said.
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Hybrid school schedules have also made it difficult for many families to engage in in-person learning during the pandemic.
This was the case with Angela Kersey, who sent her 13-year-old son Jonathon back to her Indianapolis school when it reopened this winter. But she pulled it out when she found her housing maintenance work schedule couldn’t adjust to the upheaval caused by school’s half-time hours and closures when cases of the virus. were discovered.
Speaking over Zoom, Ms Kersey rubbed her temples as she recalled trying to keep her son, who suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, engaged in online learning. There was a particularly difficult time when the two shared a single room and lived with roommates. At times, acting as both a parent and a teacher caused so many fights that Ms Kersey gave up on virtual learning.
“I just had to surrender,” she said.
Not wanting to go back to this routine, she enrolled Jonathon in a learning center five days a week at Brookside Community Church, where students supervise the remote school and sports for 14 children.
Jonathon’s regular school is now open five days a week, but Ms Kersey said she didn’t want to disrupt her son’s new routine.
In New Orleans, Frederick A. Douglass High School, part of the national network of charter schools KIPP, first reopened for in-person learning in October, and now offers students four days per week in classrooms. Even so, wooing the students back has been a major challenge. In the fall, 50 to 75 of the school’s 600 students showed up each day; more recently, about half were. Ninety percent of the school’s students are black and come from low-income families.
Towana Pierre-Floyd, the director, took several steps to convince the families to return. Maintaining upbeat events on campus, like the return election, showed students attending practically what they were missing in the building, she said. Additionally, the school has started posting weekly progress reports to families with student grades and assessment scores, a practice Ms. Pierre-Floyd said will continue even after the pandemic is over. .
Because most of the students have not been as successful virtually, the reports have left families “hungry for an option to be with the teachers,” she said.
Ms. Pierre-Floyd plans to return all of her students in person next year, but she knows this will require a big adjustment. Some teens provide child care to their younger siblings. Parents who lost their jobs in the city’s struggling tourism sector sometimes needed their children to work.
She plans to hire an attendance coordinator and expand a college entry-level program that allows high school students to earn medical assistant certification or develop carpentry skills. She said she hopes these options will show parents the economic value of bringing their children back into the building.
“Many families have built living structures around their Covid reality,” she said. The challenge now is to “get out of crisis mode and think about the future again”.