Las Vegas Sun

December 2, 2020

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Might online instruction widen the learning gap?

learning online

The Clark County School District’s abrupt shift to digital learning in mid-March was especially tough on lower-income and minority students. Reportedly, nearly one-third of all students stopped learning because they didn’t have a device or internet connectivity so they could participate in the remote instruction.

“This COVID thing has really ripped the curtain even more. It further exposed the equity problem,” says Miguel Gonzales, an assistant professor in the education policy and leadership program at UNLV.

School returns exclusively online Monday for CCSD’s roughly 320,000 students, and although federal stimulus money has armed many with Chromebooks and an arrangement with Cox Communications has helped provide internet access, the learning gap will undoubtedly continue to widen for students in lower socioeconomic households, experts say.

A variety of hurdles still exist, including: Learners in homes where English isn’t the primary language won’t have reliable help from an adult; many parents have to be at work, and can’t assist in the schooling process; some students are also caregivers to younger siblings and not focused solely on their own studies; and commotion at home doesn’t yield to a productive educational environment.

“We are faced with an uncomfortable reality that some kids are going to face distractions at home,” Gonzales says.

Also, not all Las Vegas students will be learning at home, which could potentially further widen the equity divide. Some of the area’s private schools have returned to in-person instruction, meaning Las Vegas families with the means to afford tuition—anywhere from $6,500 annually for American Heritage Academy to up to $28,000 for the Meadows—both of which offer K-12 learning—could have a distinct advantage.

Certainly, some public school students may thrive through online learning, but Iesha Jackson, an assistant professor of teaching and learning at UNLV, says, “In general, private schools are going to have more resources.”

Gonzales referenced a 2012 speech by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called the equity disparity in the U.S. education system the biggest threat to national security. “When I look at your ZIP code and I can tell whether you are going to get a good education … the crisis in K-12 education is a threat to the very fabric of who we are.”

CCSD officials concede the rollout of distance learning didn’t go smoothly in the spring, when they had little preparation to formulate a plan. Many teachers had been educating a certain way for years if not decades, and even families at some of the district’s higher-ranked schools found that some teachers posted minimal—if any—lesson plans after campuses shut down, leaving students feeling disconnected.

Now, with a summer to prepare, officials say they are in a better place. “We know we can’t repeat [last spring],” says Brenda Larsen-Mitchell, the district’s deputy superintendent. “We are working to make sure it is the very best it can be.”

The Nevada Department of Education is requiring a certain number of weekly hours of interaction between students and teachers. For students in grades 3-5, for example, online learning will be 90-120 minutes daily with reading at 9 a.m. for 30 minutes followed by a 20- to 30-minute block of language arts starting at 10:30 a.m., math at noon and science at 1 p.m. The schedule closes with 30 minutes of virtual offices hours for teachers. It also includes breaks for time away from the device or small group sessions.

If a student fails to participate for one day, it will trigger communication from the school, officials say. First, the student’s school will reach out virtually out for a wellness check. As a last resort, CCSD attendance officers will physical perform a wellness check at the student’s home.

But will it be enough, especially when a select few across the Valley are willing to risk exposure to the virus for full-day learning? Some parents with primary school-aged children tapped into their savings to pay for private schools, worried that falling behind could impact their kids’ academic lives and even adult careers.

Elissa Hollander’s 11-year-old son would have gone to Sig Rogich Middle School if she hadn’t enrolled him at Academy for Learning. Hollander said she thought her son would transition better from elementary to middle school at a smaller school with daily, live classes. “He doesn’t have to be lost in the shuffle of CCSD,” she says.

Gary Miron, professor of educational leadership, evaluation measurement and research at Western Michigan University, points to a 2015 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University that showed the nation’s K-12 online charter school students falling significantly behind their peers in traditional classrooms. Online charter students lost an average of 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year, according to the study.(You read the latter figure correctly: those charter students learned virtually no math at all.)

Miron says online education has produced poor graduation and retention rates in many situations nationally. One of the reasons is that the teachers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students with whom they must coordinate. Another is managing the distractions.

“The kids go on Facebook, they do whatever, but they’re not doing their homework,” he says.

Some 600,000 students in the U.S. were engaged in full-time online learning prior to the pandemic, according to Michael K. Barbour, associate professor of Instructional Design for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California. But, he says, even if teachers across school districts have received professional development in online teaching, virtual learning won’t be of high quality if teachers haven’t had actual experience doing it.

“The idea that I can send my kid to an in-person private school and they would get a better education than the public school online learning, the reality of that is probably true,” Barbour says. “But it’s not because in-person is better than online. The reason is that public school teachers were taught how to teach in the classroom and have been doing that for years.”

Marrissa Simms, an academic coach at Leadership Academy of Nevada—an online public charter school for grades 6-12—says students can actually be more successful learning online because they’re in the comfort of their homes, and because learning time can be more flexible. Also, “In person, I would often have to stop teaching to deal with behaviors,” Simms says.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.