2020 | Schools

For virtual learning, families need more time and communication with teachers, report finds

Black and Brown Coalition forum scheduled for Thursday

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Inadequate access to the internet and quiet learning spaces, paired with heightened isolation and less personalized support from teachers are major factors in Black and Hispanic students’ struggles during virtual learning, according to a new report from the Black and Brown Coalition.

The Black and Brown Coalition, formed a year ago, is a community group advocating for minority students in Montgomery County Public Schools. In July and August, the coalition, in partnership with researchers from the University of Maryland, interviewed 52 students, parents and staff members to evaluate virtual learning since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They found students need more access to their teachers, tutors and counselors; more frequent and clearer communication from MCPS about academic expectations; and more mental health and technology support.

In its report, provided to Bethesda Beat in advance of its public release on Thursday, the Black and Brown Coalition outlines problems families reported during online learning.

Among the problems are:

• The lack of “adult interaction to support learning during the day can feel liberating at first, but it became clear how much (students) miss and need adults to structure their responsibilities and motivate them,” the report said. At school, students feel challenged and engaged, but without the daily interaction, it’s easy to skip class and become discouraged when there is a problem that can’t be resolved quickly.

• The report says students feel “chronically frustrated” because they do not understand what is expected of them, which, again, leads to decreased motivation. This is particularly true for English language learners, according to the report.
Parents, too, reported having their questions go unanswered, which increased their frustration. Messages from the school district — whether by email, mail or phone — need to be available to parents in their native languages and “at an accessible literacy level, the report said.

• The need to improve internet connectivity and “chronic problems with Chromebooks” provided by MCPS was a “top priority” for parents and students, according to the report. Students without home WiFi were provided a mobile internet device by MCPS but the connection has been spotty for some, hindering students’ participation in live classes, the report said. Chromebooks break easily, families reported, and many students do not have space in their home to dedicate to learning, which makes focusing difficult.

The report also offers seven recommendations to make virtual learning more successful for students, particularly Black, Hispanic and low-income students.

“Even after the pandemic subsides, some Black and Latino families will still face disproportionate rates of ongoing trauma, and students will still return home to significant stressors,” the report says. “Therefore, the ultimate goal is for MCPS to create structural change that reduces disparities during the pandemic, and after schools return to in-person instruction.”

The recommendations are:

• Hiring more diverse school-based and central office staff members who understand struggling students’ problems, and “investing in proactive, trauma-informed outreach to students who are disengaged or failing.” MCPS should try to “understand the complexities of their lives,” rather than respond punitively to disengagement.

• Dedicating staff members at every school to routinely check in on students who are struggling or not engaging with their school work. The staff members should be proactive, and not wait for families to reach out for help, the report said.

• In-person activities and tutoring should be offered, complying with COVID-19 prevention guidance, so students can have more personalized access to their teachers, the report said. A “homework help hotline” should be set up and staffed on evenings and weekends, with staff members available in multiple languages.

• MCPS should provide more training to parents about how to navigate online learning platforms.

• School and district messages should be sent in multiple formats, frequently and in the many languages spoken by MCPS families, the report said. Schools should have at least one designated person at each school who can be immediately reached via phone to answer questions and address concerns.

• MCPS should provide “clear, simple, frequent” messages about expectations during virtual learning.

• There should be a hotline, staffed in multiple languages and for extended hours, to address technology problems. Mental health resources should also be available to students outside of school hours, the report said.

The Black and Brown Coalition will host a virtual forum to discuss its report on Thursday evening. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,400 people had registered for the event, according to a news release from the coalition.

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and school board President Shebra Evans are expected to speak during the event.