WSS examines how the disadvantages students face during online instruction can hinder their ability to learn. (Kailey Gee)
WSS examines how the disadvantages students face during online instruction can hinder their ability to learn.

Kailey Gee

Detached

As the ICCSD shifts between learning models, students who lack access to reliable internet and other necessary resources face significant challenges to their learning and well-being.

December 18, 2020

Reconnecting. In the age of Zoom classes, students are no stranger to this message appearing on their screen as their internet cuts in and out, and they are kicked out of the virtual classroom yet again. Reconnecting. As the lesson continues, the student scrambles to rejoin the class, fiddling with WiFi settings while hoping they aren’t missing any crucial information. Reconnecting. When they finally rejoin, the audio comes back choppy and robotic, making communication virtually impossible. 

Behind the screen

All students have had to adapt to virtual learning, but the added challenge of an unstable internet connection prevents some from effectively communicating with their teachers and peers. Since Canvas, AP classroom and other online applications are used to complete schoolwork, reliable internet and technology are essential for online academic success. 

Online school takes place on Zoom, where daily attendance is mandatory. However, features such as screen sharing and breakout sessions can be troublesome to access with a weaker internet connection or a less capable digital device like a Chromebook. For Josh Hurtado ’22, his district-provided Chromebook is not fast enough to support online learning.

“A lot of these Chromebooks that the ICCSD gives us [are] really slow, so if you open a Zoom tab, and if you want to do a Kahoot or something on another one, it will really lag the Zoom meeting,” Hurtado said.

For Pammie Quintero Rodriguez ’23, the dependence on technology during online learning is not ideal.

It’s very challenging to get the grades because I had to work harder than when I was in [person],” Quintero Rodriguez said. “I’m a more paper-pencil type girl, and so it’s very hard for me to use my Chromebook all the time because … I’m not really good at technology.” 

Off-site learning has also affected Quintero Rodriguez’s access to the additional support she usually receives through her Individualized Education Plan. She believes the technological difficulties of the online environment have heightened existing obstacles in her learning experience. 

“If I write things, I get them in my head easier … but it’s kind of hard with the Chromebook because I can’t type fast,” Quintero Rodriguez said. “I had this trouble when I was born because my hands and eyes were not coordinating very well, so that made it hard for me.”

It’s very challenging to get the grades because I had to work harder than when I was in [person].”

— Pammie Quintero Rodriguez '23

In addition to the personal struggles students are facing, online learning’s reliance on a steady internet connection proves challenging, especially for those at a lower socioeconomic status. 

A Pew Research Center analysis found that 35 percent of households with school-age children and an annual income below $30,000 lack high-speed internet access compared to 6 percent of households earning $75,000 or more annually. This internet access gap is especially prevalent in Black and Hispanic families. With online instruction dependent on a steady internet connection, these racial disparities may only exacerbate the education gap.

According to ICCSD academic data, 58.7 percent of Black students and 62.2 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in the online learning model were failing at least one class at midterms during the first trimester, while white and Asian students’ fail rates were 28 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively. 

Virtual learning has proved to be problematic for one Black West High student who wishes to remain anonymous. For this student, the recently published data is not surprising. 

“In my opinion, this [data] is because of our income level. Some may not have access to the internet and can’t attend class … Some may have jobs to support themselves and may not have enough time to study,” the anonymous source said. 

David Bills, a professor of sociology of education at the University of Iowa, echoes these sentiments, saying a family’s socioeconomic status can have a significant impact on a student’s success in the virtual classroom. 

“Social class always has something to do with these things,” Bills said. “There are big differences in the ability of families to provide quiet places for their kids to study and have jobs that are flexible enough to accommodate their kids’ learning.”

The anonymous source has experienced similar challenges. Her younger brother, who has a disability, has struggled to adjust to the online environment. Because of this, the source and her family have modified their schedules to take turns helping him during his classes.

“I think it’s hard for him because he can’t really focus and sit in one place,” she said. “He needs to be doing something hands-on to be engaged.” 

She finds the scheduling arrangement difficult to juggle with her own schooling.

“It’s hard to keep up with lectures because we have to help with his schoolwork, and he is not able to follow along with his teachers and peers,” she said. “We are all stressed out about that, and we have to create schedules to be there with him to go through the material.”

On top of this, the anonymous source’s internet cuts out periodically, further adding to the challenge.

“I could be in a lecture or in the middle of a presentation, and then suddenly I can’t hear anybody correctly or they can’t hear me, and that makes me worry about my grade,” she said.

Bills feels a strong internet connection and access to other necessary resources is imperative for a student’s academic success.

“[Unreliable internet has] almost certainly a great effect,” Bills said. “To the extent that Black and Hispanic students and families are disproportionately subject to poverty, they’re going to suffer more in situations like we’re currently experiencing.”

Teacher adjustments

To support students who have difficulty learning online, many teachers have adjusted their teaching methods. 

Stacey Noble teaches both online and hybrid AP government. To be more accommodating, she has reduced the overall amount of homework she assigns. She also tries to be flexible with due dates and sends out an overview of each week’s assignments every Sunday so students can plan their time accordingly.

Although Noble has made these adjustments, she is concerned there are still students struggling with the barriers remote learning presents.

“Truthfully, it is always a worry, whether it is a regular year or not,” Noble said. “There are students experiencing anxiety and challenges due to the online system that they haven’t experienced before, and it is a new navigation for them. It is important for all to remember that it is natural to struggle with new situations and that it doesn’t mean a path forward isn’t possible.”

Kailey Gee

English Language Learners teacher Christy Weitz finds her in-person teaching skills do not easily transfer to an online platform.

“Many ELL students have limited experience with certain computer programs. Combining that with limited English proficiency can make accessing classes feel daunting,” Weitz said. “In the online model, when cameras are off and students are participating in class by chat, it’s impossible to know if they need help with pronunciation and to gauge improvement in their ability to respond and converse in English.”

With fewer one-on-one interactions and everyday exchanges, Matt Harding, who teaches both online and hybrid science classes, feels the lack of sturdy internet during online school has strained teacher-student relationships. In his experience, poor audio quality and turned-off cameras have contributed to confusion and miscommunication.

“It’s painful on my end because I can’t get a read on them,” Harding said. “That sort of soft teacher skill of being able to look at a student and see if they’re understanding you … not having those tools available is certainly tough.”

Adaptations in the ICCSD

The ICCSD provides additional support for families who need internet access, including direct at-home internet service through Mediacom. When Mediacom does not cover the household or the current installment of cable internet service takes too long, the district provides the family with a temporary WiFi hotspot to use. Families can access these resources by filling out the technological support request form on the district’s website or calling 319-688-1950.

Typically, the district receives 16,000 to 18,000 support requests throughout an entire school year. According to Director of Technology and Innovation Adam Kurth, this year, the district received 8,000 support requests within the first three weeks of school alone. After these three weeks, the district saw fewer technology support requests as the school year continued, and Kurth views this as a promising trend. 

“For many of those students, we’ve already provided internet where that would be an issue,” Kurth said. “That’s an indication that most families who need the service already have it, and that’s a good thing, and they’ll keep that service regardless of what enrollment mode they’re in.”

Despite the district’s best efforts to provide those in need, Weitz feels there are still students who lack reliable technology.

“The district has worked very hard to provide students with hotspots, but unfortunately, the data sometimes runs out. The internet speed on a hotspot can also be an issue,” Weitz said. “If a student has problems with technology, I work with the family to find a solution, whether that is requesting a new hotspot from the district or making an appointment for Chromebook repair.”

Another service the district has provided is free grab-and-go meals for families. This began following the first school closure due to COVID-19 and subsequent transition to online learning last March. Everyone is eligible for the grab-and-go meals, regardless of their family’s income level.

According to ICCSD Nutrition Director Alison Demory, there were over 495,000 meals served from March 23 to the end of August. 

“I was proud of my staff … we were those essential workers that had to come out and make sure that families and students in this community had access to meals since school wasn’t open,” Demory said. “We know that lots of students rely on those meals, and we wanted to make sure that we were still able to provide those for anybody that wanted them.”

We know that lots of students rely on those meals, and we wanted to make sure that we were still able to provide those for anybody that wanted them.”

— Alison Demory, nutrition director

The grab-and-go meals include breakfast and lunch, and the menu has expanded over time. Meal options now include items that families can take home and warm up. For Demory, providing this service has been a gratifying experience.

“There’ve been a lot of challenges we’ve had to navigate,” Demory said. “We want to make sure that we keep everybody safe. As stressful as all of those things are, it’s just been very rewarding to feed our families.”

In the community

In response to the pandemic, organizations in the Iowa City area are adapting the ways they provide essential items to families in need. One of these is Houses into Homes, a non-profit organization that provides furniture for families who lack necessities in their homes. Co-founders Salina McCarty and Lucy Barker started the organization after volunteering at elementary schools and realizing there were some students who did not have stable living situations.

Kailey Gee

“I started to hear a lot [of] ‘I’m tired,’ ‘I’m sore,’ and eventually, the kids let me know that they didn’t have beds at home, and I was shocked,” McCarty said. “At that point [I] felt like I was sort of in the know about the needs in our community.”

Despite obstacles posed by the pandemic, Houses into Homes is still working to provide the community with household necessities.

“To learn that there were kids in our district who were sleeping on the floor was something that was so awful, and I couldn’t imagine trying to be a successful student and do my homework and eat dinner … from the floor in my home,” McCarty said. “Even though we’re dealing with a pandemic and a crisis unlike one that we’ve ever encountered in our lives before, we have to keep in mind that public education, for a lot of kids, is their shot at exiting the cycle of poverty.”

Bills agrees schooling is crucial for upward economic mobility and says the increasing cost of higher education can be a substantial obstacle for those of lower socioeconomic status.  

We have to keep in mind that public education, for a lot of kids, is their shot at exiting the cycle of poverty.”

— Salina McCarty, co-founder of Houses into Homes

“Policymakers have typically looked to education as a way for people to rise out of poverty,” Bills said. “With the escalating costs of higher education, that’s becoming more difficult for many people.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 46 percent of children living in poverty come from a household where their parents did not graduate from high school. 

McCarty feels it may be difficult for students who possess basic necessities to understand the barriers of those who don’t.

“If your entire life you’ve had a bed and you’ve had furniture, it’s really difficult to imagine being a student who doesn’t have those things,” McCarty said. “There are homes in our district … that I feel [are] completely inequitable for students to be expected to learn from.”

The combination of an unstable internet and a new learning environment can pose an additional set of challenges for students. To help these students succeed, numerous Neighborhood Nurturing Every Student Together Safely, or NESTS, have been created around the community to provide adequate internet, food and additional technological resources.

Deb Dunkhase, one of the founders of the Open Heartland NESTS, primarily works with Hispanic immigrant families living in Johnson County’s mobile home communities. There, she strives to create a safe and reliable place for students to learn. 

Kailey Gee

“We just wanted a big, big old room [where] we’d put in some desks and provide internet access,” Dunkhase said. “And then some other people in the community, they loved the whole idea … so it all kind of came together, [and] we are part of that whole big NEST initiative.” 

Hurtado is a student volunteer working with the Open Heartland NESTS to help younger elementary students. From tutoring students through online assignments to troubleshooting technological issues, Hurtado is striving to create a beneficial learning environment for many.

“Most of the kids there don’t have access to the internet, or they don’t know how to navigate Zoom or Canvas,” Hurtado said. “At least for me, if I were in their place, it would have been awesome to know that there was a safe place where I could go to take my classes and get help. It makes me feel good that I’m helping these kids.”

According to Dunkhase, internet and technological resources provided by the ICCSD are not effective enough for students to use during their online education.

“I think the school district did the best job they could have done, but these hotspots were unstable,” Dunkhase said. “If you got more than one child on it at once, then they were really unstable. And most of these families have three to six kids living in a household. It just wasn’t working for them.”

Missie Forbes, the executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care of Johnson County, or 4Cs, says the NESTS’ main goal is to address the gaps in students’ learning that have worsened as a result of the pandemic.

Nurturing Every Student Together Safely, also known as NESTS, creates a safe place for students to learn during online learning. (Image courtesy of Deb Dunkhase )

“The main goal of NESTS is to make sure that the academic gap doesn’t widen … it was already there before, and COVID-19 just made it worse,” Forbes said. “Our intention is to make sure that every child in our school district has equity in education.”

One option McCarty proposes is to give students who face significant challenges while learning virtually the opportunity to attend school in person despite the online waiver. 

“My hope … is that [the district] would open the doors to students, first, who have the most barriers to their learning,” McCarty said. “They are capable, wonderful students, and they just need to be in buildings where they can learn.”

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