Bridging gaps: Remote learning creates new challenges in meeting diverse student needs

by Sarah Earle

Volunteers prepare boxes of food and supplies to distribute to Concord families on March 27 at Rundlett Middle School. The Concord School District coordinated with the NH Food Bank to conduct a food drive after schools were ordered closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Michelle Davis has spent her entire 24-year teaching career in Franklin, a quiet city tucked between the state’s capital and the White Mountains. History and natural beauty abound in this former mill city, home to statesman Daniel Webster’s birthplace and the headwaters of the Merrimack River, but it’s seen its share of hard times since the mills that provided its lifeblood closed. At Franklin Middle School, where Davis teaches social studies and English language arts, 63% of students qualify for school meal programs. 

Since New Hampshire K-12 schools were ordered closed on March 15 to slow the spread of COVID-19, Davis, who also serves as tech integrator for the district, has been scrambling to transition her lessons to a new format and help other teachers utilize digital resources effectively. 

But academics aren’t the only thing on her mind. 

“As a teacher, you worry,” Davis said. “Are the kids eating? Are they getting into trouble? They’re your kids.” 

Public schools provide much more than academic instruction. They support social development and citizenship skills, offer exposure to the arts and athletics, and deliver critical services meant to fill learning gaps and remove barriers to opportunity. 

With schools closed, educators are trying to continue providing those critical supports. In some respects, they’re finding success, while in others, they’re struggling. 

“The teachers have been amazing. The parent support has been amazing … and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” said Daniel LeGallo, superintendent of the Franklin School District. “Unfortunately, there are just some needs that can’t be met in this kind of setting.”

“We’re doing our best to reach everyone.”

Within hours of Gov. Sununu’s executive order announcing the closure of all K-12 schools in the state, administrators were mapping out plans to keep the school lunch programs running. Many were able to set up pick-up sites where students could get bag lunches by the first day schools were closed. Some districts also employed their bus drivers and other school personnel to deliver lunches along bus routes. Most have obtained waivers for school meal program criteria and are now offering free breakfast and lunch to any student who wants one. The move allows them to comply with privacy requirements and help families who may suddenly find themselves in need due to layoffs or other financial burdens related to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“It’s working extremely well,” said William Harbron, superintendent of the Dover School District, which is providing meals to 600-700 students a day at pick-up sites around the city. 

Superintendents around the state expressed similar optimism about the lunch program. Many did, however, note that their numbers are down in spite of the waiver. That’s not necessarily a reason for alarm, but some administrators wonder if they’re reaching everyone who needs food. 

“One of the things we’re doing that we hadn’t done before is, we’ve taken a list of families and divided them up, and teachers are checking in with them to make sure they have enough food,” said John Freeman, superintendent of the Pittsfield School District, where about 50% of the 600 students qualify for school meal programs and about 200 are currently receiving bag lunches and breakfasts daily. 

The district has also expanded its food pantry offerings and added new families to its rolls, said Dean of Instruction Danielle Harvey. 

Boxes of food and supplies await pickup outside Rundlett Middle School in Concord on March 27. The Concord School District collaborated with the NH Food Bank to conduct a food drive after schools were ordered closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Some districts are also collaborating with local businesses and agencies to reach more families in need. During the first week of the school closures, Concord School District staff coordinated a food drive in conjunction with the New Hampshire Food Bank and assembled boxes for families to pick up at the middle school, according to business administrator Jack Dunn. 

Like Freeman, Dunn said administrators are conducting outreach to identify families in need. “We’re adjusting our routes daily,” he said. “Somebody might tell us, ‘oh, we know there’s a group or pod of families here,’ … We’re doing our best to reach everyone.”

The digital divide

In the days after the school shut-down was announced, school administrators also scrambled to get technology into place for remote learning. The most pressing task — along with training teachers to deliver lessons online — was ensuring all students had tools for and means of accessing the Internet. While many schools, particularly high schools, already had sufficient devices for every student, some had to purchase and distribute devices. Many also helped refer families without Internet service to local providers who are offering free basic Internet packages during the closures. A few loaned wifi “hot spots” out to families in areas that don’t have Internet service. 

Superintendents around the state now report that virtually all students in their districts have the necessary technology to complete their schoolwork. For the few that don’t, the schools are offering alternate, paper-based lessons that aim to meet the same competencies in a different way. 

But if remote learning has spurred schools to start bridging the digital divide, it’s also illuminated how vast that divide can be. 

In some households, students share devices with siblings or parents, or use personal devices not designed for the tasks. And though most households now have Internet access, some are still battling poor connectivity or inadequate speed, particularly in rural areas. 

In Franklin, administrators were careful not to build classes around technology that might leave some kids behind. They quickly realized the social value of livestream video but initially struggled to get it up and running. 

“Our tech director was concerned about how much access kids would have to live video,” LeGallo said. “We wanted to make sure we could equitably roll it out to everybody.” 

Technical issues aren’t the only obstacles in transitioning to online learning. Educators have also had to consider the widely varying degrees of digital expertise among the families they serve. 

At Mill Brook School, a K-2 school in Concord, about 18% of enrolled students are English language learners. Some families have had difficulty getting their children connected to learning platforms, and much of the technical documentation is only available in English, said Mill Brook Principal Katie Scarpati. Additionally, a large number of students are being raised by grandparents, some of whom struggle with technology. Teachers, sometimes with the help of translators, have walked families through the technical processes. But Scarpati still worries about keeping all students on track. 

Davis has similar concerns. Along with a significant number of students being raised by grandparents, there are families that are under too much strain to devote time to setting up and managing online accounts or troubleshooting Internet problems, she said. A few families have expressed philosophical objections to the amount of screen time required for online learning as well. The school has accommodated their concerns by providing paper-based materials. 

The digital divide can also be seen at a district level. While some districts have the funds to subscribe to pricey learning platforms and digital resources, districts like Franklin have to rely on more rudimentary programs and navigate a patchwork of free trial subscriptions, Davis said. 

Even as it has amplified inequities in schools, technology has provided a few interesting opportunities to reach struggling students, Davis said. For example, the unified arts teachers at Franklin Middle School have been invited into some of the main classes in Google Classroom and have created arts-based lessons that connect to the content the students are learning. 

“I think some of the kids that maybe don’t engage as easily but that are more art and music inclined might benefit from it,” Davis said. “There are a couple of kids I have in mind that I’m hoping to reach that way.” 

Coming tomorrow: Educators discuss how they’re addressing special education responsibilities and dealing with a range of other student needs