Ideas for making online education more equitable when school starts in August

LA’s new school year begins in August, and it’s going to look a lot different because of coronavirus. Each day this week, Press Play is going to look at a different aspect of how people are preparing. 

The shift to online learning took a heavy toll on many Black and Brown students within the LA Unified School District. Some didn’t have laptops. Others didn’t have Wifi at home. Others didn’t show up to virtual courses — LAUSD says some 50,000 middle and high school students were absent for one reason or another.

KCRW talks about these problems and how to possibly make remote learning more effective in the fall.  

Tunette Powell is interim director of UCLA’s Parent Project, which helps bridge the gap between educators and parents. Keara Williams is an English teacher at Augustus Hawkins High School in South LA.

KCRW: Keara, you teach 11th grade Advanced Placement English and 12th grade general English. When the pandemic hit, how did you transition to online learning? What did it look like for your students?

Keara Williams: My class started online since August when school started. So I felt like I was really ahead of the game in terms of already uploading assignments, providing instruction. Assessments were all online. So that part of my classes were ready normal. That was our routine. 

But one thing that I noticed as soon as we went to remote learning, the number of assignments had to immediately reduce because I didn't know what was going on at that point with students' homes. Were parents working? The students have to work. Could they even make the Zoom call at the scheduled time that my school had decided on? So already I recognized the need to say ‘okay, chill out’ before I'm asking them to complete assignments all from home.”

Did your students have tech at home?

Keara Williams: “Some did. A lot did not. And so at my school site, we scheduled two distribution days, where we’re able to distribute computers. I was able to make one of those days. So we did not have hotspots the first time we distributed technology. That was just strictly laptops. So by the second day, we did have hotspots. So we were able to give both somewhere around May.”

You're anticipating that next month, all your students will have technology and be ready to go?

Keara Williams: “Yes, absolutely. We're also working on many of our incoming students. Because we were able to handle ninth through 12th, but our seniors graduated, but now we have new ninth graders. So the next step is making sure our ninth graders have technology. ... We had a community forum for our parents last week.”

Tunette, you not only help connect educators and parents, you're a parent yourself. How did you experience this?

Tunette Powell: “I feel very fortunate just to be here in a healthy mental state, that my kids are in a healthy mental state. … I say that as someone who does this work and has been involved in education for a very long time. But it was difficult. 

And even though my children, we have Wifi here at home, and they were given tablets from school, [but] the devices did not work. And even when the district had IT people on site of some of the schools, they could not fix the devices. 

So for my oldest son, he was able to use the device that he had at home. My middle son, we couldn't buy everybody iPads. So he had to use a Kindle, which is not designed for most of the apps. It’s not compatible with most of the learning that they were doing online. He missed a lot of instruction.”

Many parents have to put their work on hold or figure out a workaround so they can keep their kids learn. How are you advising educators and parents on making at-home learning easier?  

Tunette Powell: “Keara said some really good things, first of all, with wanting to figure out what is the home situation. And to me, it's not just making sure that you have Wifi or a device. It has to go beyond that. Because when you are in school, the learning environment is set up so that it is conducive to learning, right? 

...What's really going to be helpful is to figure out what other resources do families need at home beyond a device and Wifi or hotspot to be able to access that device. … For some families, it might be that they need some headphones that would help with cancelling out noise. They might need a work station for their children, right? … They can't work from a bed all year-round. 

So just thinking about what are the additional resources that students and parents are going to need to be successful? … And this is where the district comes in … make sure that not only the teachers have what they need, but parents have what they need, and students have what they need.”

Keara, are you hearing that from the district that they're working on resource problems?

Keara Williams: “No, it's very generic from the district. LAUSD serves thousands of students and teachers, and I think they're scrambling to figure it out. … This is kind of where you leave it up to each individual school site to kind of take on that leadership. So I'm really fortunate to work at the school I work at because my principal was having those conversations with teachers. I work at a pilot school. … And what that means is teachers sort of lead the school. … Everything we want to kind of do, we decide together. … We are, as a team, trying to figure out what do we need to do to support teachers? And what do we need to do to support students?”

When you see that 50,000 kids didn't show up to class last spring, what does that say to you?

Keara Williams: “It speaks to the students we serve. So we have a lot of undocumented students. We have students a lot that are homeless, are considered foster children. So I think that what we're finally recognizing is the students we serve for the first time.”

What are some positive things that you're seeing that could possibly make this semester better than spring?

Keara Williams: “I am recognizing, or I did before the school ended, that although students weren't Zooming into class, they were submitting work. So they were finding the time, right? They were emailing me, or sending messages late at night asking questions about the assignment. So they are engaged, right? It is not what we consider engagement, maybe as a society, or even as a collective, right? But we definitely need to learn to be flexible because students do care. Students are submitting work. It's just not the way we want them to, and it's not when we want them to. 

So we have to let go of, ‘All students need to do it by this time at this date.’ So where's the flexibility? Even shifting the grading scale a little bit. I am against the traditional grading scale. The 100% scale. And it says zero to 50 is a fail. … That is unfair for a student who's trying to navigate their home structures, whatever they may be. … I have tons of students who are working full time and still trying to submit work. So for that student, I'm not going to hold you accountable for not attending a Zoom call. … Physically, emotionally, you just can't afford to.” 

Tunette, what are some solutions that you're discussing with parents and educators?

Tunette Powell: “If I could respond to this idea of what do we think of when we hear that 50,000 didn't log in — I think a couple of things that are important, and I'll weave that into thinking about some of these solutions.

But there are really two problems there. Of course, we know the issue of equity. Of course, as we talked about, different home lives look very different. But then there's also this issue of connection. And I think we had that made up In our minds that we were going to switch platforms and everything was just going to work out, as if these other issues were not already there and persistent. And so what we see happening in the online space is what happens every day, when we're there physically, there are people who are not tapped in, they're not engaged. But some of that is because we've disenfranchised certain groups. And so we have to be willing to address that. And it's not going to go away just because learning is happening from home. 

I think solution-wise … we have to do a better job of connecting. … The challenge is going to be how do we do something that we weren't doing well before? There are community people who have done it well for a long time, and were on the outside of LAUSD. 

LAUSD and other districts alike are going to have to partner with other groups who have done successful community-building, and done very successful with working with low-income students and with Black and Brown communities.”

Will flexibility come from individual schools, rather than from top-down? 

Tunette Powell:  “It has to be a combination. Because again, school by school, if you look at areas where there are a high number of families who are low-income, are Black and Brown communities, they have leadership that hasn't been there for a long time, high turnover, must hire principals, things like that. So the district will have to help. 

There are schools that I can think of right now that of course I won't name,  but they have leadership that's not ready to do this at a school level. And so that has to be addressed. And so there is a local aspect. But the district and the local districts know where the weak leadership is, where we've placed novice teachers without support. We have to be able to address that. It cannot just be on the local level, because we haven't done right and equipped the local level to be able to do it alone. The district is not off the hook.”

Keara, given how topsy turvy the world is, what novels are you going to be teaching your 11th and 12th graders?

Keara Williams: “‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is extremely relevant with what's going on with the movement Black Lives Matter. So I'm also the Black Student Union advisor. … And so that is the novel we always read every year. So I definitely want to start with that. 

One thing that I have committed to doing this year is shifting a bit. So what I'm committed to doing is helping my students, or preparing them rather, for life outside of high school in this economy specifically. Post-pandemic. What does that mean for you financially? What does that mean for your family? Why is it important more than ever to own a home? What is the right time to buy a home?

So my English class is going to look more of like, ‘All right, how do I prepare you? Yes, I'm giving you the skills to read, write. … But also how am I preparing you for this world?’”

—Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin