A 'Great Big Digital Divide' Is Hampering LA Schools Efforts To Teach Remotely

Los Angeles Unified supplied iPads to students to take new digital state tests. (Ben Brayfield for KPCC)

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced millions of Southern California students home from school.

Still, Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised to keep funding public schools so long as they use options like distance learning or online education to continue students' education from home.

But earlier this week, leaders of the state's largest school district admitted that, so far, results from this sudden pivot to online or distance instruction have been mixed.

"We estimate about one-half of our students are continuing to learn at the pace they had been at school," Los Angles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said. "One-quarter are doing okay ... and one-quarter aren't getting the learning opportunity they should be."

Why? "A great big digital divide," Beutner said — a divide that's always been there, but that the coronavirus shutdown has laid bare in a particularly stark way.


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THE REALITY ON THE GROUND

Edith Perez is one of thousands of parents who, so far, haven't been able to cross that divide.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 13, her fifth-grade son returned to her South Gate home with a packet full of homework. The following Sunday, her ninth-grade daughter's school called with the news: L.A. Unified school campuses would close because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, Perez and her daughter are stuck. Perez doesn't have a computer at home. Her daughter's assignments are all online. Perez's phone won't open the files.

Her daughter's friend does own a computer at home, but that means visiting her friend's house — an option that makes Perez uncomfortable as social distancing rules tighten.

""I told her today, 'Don't come,'" Perez said. "'Just stay home.'"

At least her fifth-grade son's assignments came in pencil-and-paper form, she said — but Perez said she hasn't received any further communication from his teacher since the shutdown to direct his studies. This could be because she hasn't registered her contact info with the school, but Perez doesn't know who to contact to fix that.

"I'm trying to be strong," Perez said. "I'm entertaining [them], cooking, cleaning. I'm trying to be positive all the time."

NO INTERNET, NO DEVICE

While Perez has internet access at home, an estimated one-quarter of LAUSD families do not. Like Perez, many families lack a device at home — and before the shutdown, LAUSD officials estimated the district owned 330,000 laptops and tablets for about 472,000 students.

Beutner has launched a $100 million emergency plan that includes an agreement with Verizon to provide internet hotspots. The district will also buy more devices for students who need them. Some of those devices and hotspots may still not arrive for more than a week, Beutner said in an interview earlier this week.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner announced on March 23 that school campuses will remain closed through May 1. (LAUSD website screenshot)

'SKILLS ARE GOING TO BE LOST'

Many teachers have embraced the challenge of the shift to distance learning, refreshing websites daily with new virtual lessons for their students.

"Teachers are working around the clock," said A.J. Lugo, a special education resource teacher at Canoga Park Elementary. "We are not just waking up and hanging out on our sofa ... We always rise to the occasion, so I want parents to be reassured that we are doing everything we can to ensure that their student is continuing to learn."

But some educators also worry that schools can only expect students to learn so much during the time lost to the pandemic.

"We just have to assume there are some skills that are going to be lost," said Charla Austin Harris, the founder of Learning By Design, a South L.A. charter school that's dealing with some of the same challenges as LAUSD on a far smaller scale.

Her question: "How are we going to pick this back up and support the child when school comes back in?"

"Even in the most resource-rich schools," Austin Harris said, "that are providing the most engagement — this is new for everyone."

'THIS IS NOT A BREAK. YOU'RE GOING TO KEEP LEARNING'

Fifth-grade teacher Daisy Leon picked an auspicious time to embrace digital platforms.

Maybe three months ago, the Canoga Park Elementary School teacher began ramping up her use of Google Classroom, a website where teachers can post and grade assignments and communicate with students.

Why? "I'm always trying to perfect my craft," Leon said — that, and she was tiring of homework assignments piled into disorganized stacks.

Two weeks ago — instead of using pen, paper and a document projector — Leon began using the online textbook in her classroom and displaying the screen of her iPad in front of the class.

Though Leon's no Luddite, she said the shift was overwhelming: "But forcing myself to use a platform for my whole class started get me to be a little more creative and say, 'How can I use the technology that they have to present this lesson?'"

So on Wednesday, March 11, she posted a "how-to" video so students could learn a concept while she was absent — perfect preparation for online instruction.

The next day, students were told the school might close. By Friday, she was giving them marching orders:

"This is not a break," Leon told her students. "Starting on Monday, we're going to keep going. I'm going to keep teaching you. You're going to keep learning.

"And I told myself," Leon added, "I need to have something [online] on Monday — something good, something they're going to know how to do."

Even if nobody logs on.

An art teacher works with a student in a digital arts classroom. (Carla Javier/LAist)

HOW MANY STUDENTS ARE LOGGING ON?

Since in-person classes were canceled, Leon has been cranking out content: recorded video math lessons, live math lessons with students over Zoom videoconferencing, interactive videos on EdPuzzle and NearPod.

But Leon said of her 28 students, only 14 or 15 are logging in regularly. In an interview earlier this week, she said six students are completely missing in action; they haven't logged in at all or responded to messages since LAUSD closed its campuses. (In other words, one-quarter of her class — exactly in line with Beutner's estimate.)

Every kid at Leon's school is assigned an iPad, and during the shutdown, students took them home.

Canoga Park is a low-income school — 92% of students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price meals — so internet access at home might be an issue.

But one of Leon's students doubts that.

During one of her live lessons on Zoom, the student told her, "'I was on Fortnite and I see these three kids — they're there playing all day long. I try to message them, they don't message back.'" Leon said. "Even my kids now are like, 'C'mon. You should log on' ... They want to see their friends!"

'THERE ARE REASONS BEYOND MY CONTROL'

Some teachers see exciting upside potential in this messy, large-scale experiment with distance learning.

"This gives us a little bit of a preview about what schools might look like certainly in the foreseeable future," said Erik Christensen, who teaches social studies at Granada Hills Charter High School.

Christensen, who makes extensive use of the Google Classroom suite in his classes, said he believes education hasn't seen nearly the leaps of innovation as in other sectors of industry or society. This could be a chance for teachers to try something forward-thinking.

Still, he recognizes that for many teachers, "It's a lot to wrap your head around, especially for teachers who may not be tech-savvy."

This week, LAUSD officials issued a memo to help teachers wrap their head around the task at hand.

The memo laid out a list of expectations for teachers. District officials answered questions like: how much time should students spend in front of a screen? How should kids get graded? Should attendance be taken?

The district wants teachers to hold virtual office hours three times a week and to report if any student goes more than five days without logging in.

In the meantime, if they don't log in, Leon said she's trying not to take it personally.

"I have to be okay with it," she said. "I have to say, there are reasons beyond my control."