Distance learning has multiple cracks, and students are falling through them

By: - September 4, 2020 7:09 am

(Photo: Clark County School District)

As the Clark County School District wraps up its second week of instruction, at least 39,574 students lack a Chromebook or device that allows them to fully participate in distance learning.

At least 16,339 students lack access to the internet.

And the technological needs of an additional 43,653 students are unknown. Because the group tasked with ensuring connectivity for every student within the district has yet to connect with them.

The Connecting Kids Nevada website reports that 86 percent of CCSD students had been contacted as of Wednesday. That’s 274,940 of 318,593 students.

Of those students who have been reached, 6 percent lack access to the internet at home and 8 percent lack a device capable of connecting them to the district’s distance learning portals.

During a media call on the first day of school, CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara emphasized that while tens of thousands of students were marked as having not been reached, that did not mean every one of those students is facing technology issues. Families who have ignored survey links sent via email by the district — maybe because they don’t need assistance or because they have moved out of state — would fall under that number.

lots of red
A heat map showing the rates of response to a CCSD survey about the technological needs of students. Click to enlarge. (Image: Connecting Kids Nevada)

But a heatmap showing response rates to the school district’s survey about technological needs does suggest a correlation between household median income and low rates of response.

The zipcode with the lowest response rate is 89106, where the median household income is $34,934 — significantly below the countywide median household income of $63,279. There, only 38.79 percent responded to the survey.

The zipcode with the highest response rates is 89139, where the median household income is $83,048 — significantly above the countywide median household income. There, 89.34 percent responded to the survey.

Only one of the 10 zip codes with the lowest response rates to the district’s technological needs survey comes close to the average median household income. The majority are noticeably lower.

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CCSD directed the Current’s request for an interview about the technology resource needs of students to Connecting Kids.

Connecting Kids declined to make someone available for an interview but through a public relations firm responded to questions via email.

When asked how, with classes already underway for more than a week, there are still tens of thousands of students listed as not having been contacted, the organization responded only that it’s “tracking students who we cannot yet confirm have access to a device and reliable internet.”

Connecting Kids is working with more than 40 community partners on outreach efforts, including door-to-door canvassing and providing fliers for distribution by food banks already interacting with people in need.

Simply connecting with the students in need is just one issue.

One substitute teacher who volunteered at the “Family Support Center” operated by Connecting Kids noted on social media that many of the people she spoke to did not qualify for the subsidized internet plans being offered through a partnership between Cox Communications and CCSD. To be eligible for the subsidized internet, an adult must be a new customer with K-12 children who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, Head Start, SNAP, WIC, LIHEAP or TANF, or receive tenant-based vouchers, project-based vouchers or section 8 project-based rental assistance, or live in public housing.

According to Connecting Kids, families who don’t qualify for the Cox program are being directed to a social worker to determine whether they might qualify for any of the federal assistance programs that would make them eligible for the program.

Having an outstanding balance with Cox can also disqualify you from participation in the program.

“There are some heroic efforts to deliver tech to those who need it,” said Bradley Marianno, a UNLV professor who studies K-12 education. “But it may not — it’s likely not — going to be sufficient.”

Students will fall through the cracks, if not because of hurdles like inflexible program requirements, then because of non-technological resource issues that are beyond the control of any school district.

“There will likely be a reckoning,” added Marianno. “We will have to reconcile that we have not served all of our students during distance learning. There will be kids, perhaps our most vulnerable, that have not had that delivered.”

Alexis Salt, a CCSD teacher and school board candidate, says she feels the district is “doing a really good job connecting with the kids who obviously need help” but is not being forward-thinking and reaching out to families that might not be accustomed to dealing with hardship.

As students began attending virtual Google Meet classes, parents and teachers alike started reporting on social media that they have gone over the data limit set by their internet provider, leading to overage fees.

“We look at some kids and think they live in a middle class or upper middle class neighborhood so we don’t need to worry about them,” said Salt. “These are the families I’m seeing who are starting to struggle. … I’m afraid we have a lot of families who don’t know how to get help. That’s not the world they occupy.”

She added that she’s already seen families begin rationing bandwidth between their children. She fears that, with unemployment still rampant and more layoffs on the horizon, resources issues will only get worse: “The data overage that we’re starting to see? It’s the iceberg.”

Clark County Education Association President Marie Neisess also applauded the efforts the district and community have made in connecting students to devices and internet service but noted that other issues are arising everyday.

Teachers are reporting that some students, especially those in older neighborhoods where updating internet infrastructure hasn’t been a priority for major internet service providers, are having issues with internet reliability. They are finding themselves frozen and dropped from the live session of their classes. Other students have devices that are not new enough to run some of the applications being used by their teachers. Teachers are grappling with how to protect students from being exposed to internet trolls who jump into Google Meet classrooms and show or say inappropriate things. They are also dealing with how to manage virtual classroom situations — like students taking their computer into the bathroom with them, or watching pornography on a second screen that might be visible to them.

Neisess says she spoke to one teacher who was verbally attacked during a live classroom session by a parent who felt their young child was being ignored: “Their child had their hand raised, but there were six other students with hands raised.”

CCEA is meeting weekly with Jara and other district officials to work through these and other problems. The union is also working toward ensuring the district has protocols in place for safely reopening schools.

One major component of the district’s reopening plan — free rapid testing being available for all district employees prior to returning to the building and testing for those who need it — received CARES Act funding from the Interim Finance Committee on Thursday. That program is being operated by the CCEA-associated Teachers Health Trust but will be accessible to all districts in the state for all employees, not just teachers.

Neisess wouldn’t say whether the union will push for schools to physically reopen sooner than the 90 days currently committed to by the school board. The school board is set to revisit the issue of distance learning after 30 days of instruction, which would be toward the end of this month.

Instead, she emphasized that safety was the top priority: “Safety has to be in place. We’re not willing to put employees at risk.”

For the union that means a fully funded reopening plan and a “crystal clear rollout.”

‘When it comes to student safety, we can’t have hiccups,” she added.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.