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AUSD Strives to Connect for the Sake of Students

High school student does remote learning. Photo by Nancy Guan

Location

Alhambra , CA

Before stay-at-home orders hit in March, Mark Keppel High School student Katherine Harry was slamming volleyballs on the court and living out her thespian dreams in hours-long theater rehearsals after school. Now a senior, she’s spending her last year of high school in zoom classes all contained within the computer screen in front of her.

“For a senior, it’s especially important that we have those social interactions … because we’re all going to be splitting off for college, so we’re all kind of sad because we’re never really going to have a normal day,” Harry said.

With volleyball games postponed for the time being, she drills by herself to keep in shape. However, as a result of creative innovation that has been necessary within the confines of distance learning, Harry is also gearing up for the school’s first-ever radio play, an immersive audio experience of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It’s just one example of how students, teachers and staff have had to pivot in order to recreate the feeling of community inherent to school life, something that now feels nostalgic to many.

Is this a lost generation?

Just last week the Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest public school system, released a report that showed a rising number of D and F grades since the start of the pandemic. It was a confirmation of what many already suspected given the struggles of remote learning, but, nonetheless, was troubling as some refer to a possible “lost generation” of students.

Additionally, experts have predicted a learning loss of 30% in literacy and 50% of math gains as a result of the pandemic. The research is from an April 2020 Northwest Evaluation Association analysis. The educational assessment not-for-profit extrapolated existing data of learning loss that typically happens over the summer.

For San Gabriel High School, the upward tick in failing grades is true. Compared to 2019’s quarter one D and F rates (42.56%), this year’s quarter one rate is 45.01% (rates are calculated by dividing total number students with at least one D or F by student enrollment). Meanwhile, Mark Keppel and Alhambra High Schools’  failing grade rates have trended downward. The AUSD also includes an alternative high school, 13 K-8 schools and special education services.

“I can’t sit next to a student and do an assignment with them anymore and sometimes that’s the difference between a student’s D and a C,” Hanna Jalawan, an English teacher at San Gabriel High School, said. Jalawan also noted that opportunities for casual conversation have diminished and that using breakout rooms for students can “feel more serious.”

Janet Lees, one of Alhambra’s assistant superintendents, acknowledged the loss of in-person instruction has “affected families in a variety of ways.” In a written statement, she said, “Fortunately, AUSD’s Distance Learning during the 2020-21 school year looks very different than last spring’s emergency pandemic response. It is now more structured, more organized and more intensive.”

Part of the district’s distance learning plan is providing a Chromebook and hotspot to every student who needs the technology. Lees said in a phone interview that even prior to the pandemic, Alhambra schools were already budgeting for Chromebooks. Up to now, 7,047 devices have been distributed, which cost the district around $1.3 million, along with 550 hot spots, which together cost $13,000 a month.

“We need to ensure that students are learning as optimally as they can in the distance learning environment” Lees said.

Ken Tang, a newly elected school board member and a veteran teacher in the Garvey School District,  is not a fan of the term “lost generation” much like other educators and administrators Alhambra Source spoke with. In a way, it is dooming the students at a time that is “not business as usual” and overlooks students who are actually learning better in this environment, Tang said.

“I truly believe in educating the whole child, not just in the realm of academics, but also teaching students how to problem solve during this time,” Tang said.

Jalawan responded similarly to the term “lost generation.” “A lot of students have learned to become problem solvers during distance learning,” she said, “before they were looking to be led, but now, because they have to figure it out themselves, it’s helped their problem solving skills.”

Their views are part of a much wider belief that warnings of learning loss can be detrimental to parents and cater to a narrow view of achievement. “They create pressure on already-stressed-out parents to do more teaching at home — and, worse, to do more of the most traditional, least meaningful kind of teaching that’s geared toward memorizing facts and practicing lists of skills rather than exploring ideas,” writes Valerie Strauss, a Washington Post education reporter.

Still, learning loss caused by COVID-19 can have significant long-term effects, especially for low-income students of color. Chief among them are earning levels. An analysis by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, states that “the average K-12 student in the U.S. could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (in constant 2020 dollars), or the equivalent of a year of full-time work, solely as a result of COVID-19– related learning losses.” The consequences are disproportionately higher for Black and Latino students.

Tang says the focus should be on closing these existing gaps. “There is a resource gap especially for families that are in a low socioeconomic status,” Tang says. “The exposure to technology and how to access certain programs” in itself is part of that gap.

Problems breed creativity.

Throughout the district, pockets of creativity have emerged to solve the dilemma of disconnection. At Emery Park Elementary School, Principal Jeremy Infranca hosts weekly zoom meetings with parents and teachers to troubleshoot, discuss and connect.

“I don’t have control over the pandemic. I don’t have control of whether we’re open or not, but what I do have control over is my accessibility and parents being able to connect with me,” Infranca said. Infranca, who is in his fifth year as principal, says he “strives to be a servant leader.”

As a result of his weekly “Zooming with the Principal” meetings, Emery Park parents have solved technology issues and found new avenues of connection. A GroupMe chat now exists for each grade level of the K-8 school where parents can check in with each other about anything from upcoming assignments to ever-present tech issues.

Ana Reyes, parent of a 5th grader at Emery Park said the chat has built a “real sense of community.” “And if you did [fall off the radar], you can nudge your next neighbor or your next parent on this app just to check in with each other,” Reyes said.

However, Infranca acknowledges that there are some families who may not have the same means to stay connected. To that, he says “the streets have become my hallways.” As a past coordinator for student and family welfare, Infranca said he’s used to doing at-home visits. But this time around, with the proper PPE and social distancing.

“Once they feel like they have a connection with somebody on campus, they’re more likely to put forth an effort in their learning,” Infranca said. By his count, he has done about 20 to 25 home visits in the first trimester this year, which includes playing baseball with a student.

Even so, some families face hardships that cannot be solved easily or quickly. Martha Ruvalcaba, an SGHS parent who works as a school coordinator in the neighboring Garvey School District has heard, through her work, that some parents are really struggling financially.

Ruvalcaba recounts the story of a parent who, on top of taking care of a younger child in school, has to work two jobs. The lack of free after-school programs during the pandemic has added to that parent’s stress, she said. They’ve told her “I don’t know how long I can keep doing this.”

“For some parents, even a hundred dollars is quite much when you barely make it to put food on the table,” Ruvalcaba said.

“Distance learning caused by the pandemic is exacerbating inequity,” Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a research and advocacy group, said.

“Our schools need more resources now than ever. We’re going to need to act courageously in this next budget cycle to make sure that happens.”

Experiences vary among students.

In a Zoom conversation with a group of Mark Keppel High School students, it is clear that the outlook on distance learning varies widely. Most lament the lack of social interaction, others bring up that students with social anxiety have begun to thrive academically and, in some instances, they shared that they are finally getting enough sleep.

The crew of four sophomores and one senior, Katherine Harry, are all part of a newly formed student-led club called 626 Speak Out, an organization that encourages youth activism and brings awareness to social justice issues. They’re part of a sudden boost of school clubs borne out of the pandemic. Some of them speculate that the surge may be due to other extracurriculars being cancelled because of social distancing.

At the same time, Keanna Luu said students are becoming more socially aware due to what’s going on in the world around them. “A lot more organizations are popping up centered on social justice and mental health which is really cool,” Luu said.

Mental health is a topic that came up frequently during the Zoom conversation— most of which had to do with the lack of motivation that comes with being isolated at home.

“When school loses its physical location and sense of tangibleness, it’s hard to get motivated,” said Alina Wong, “and when other peers talk about their successes, it propels you forward, but you don’t have that anymore.”

Harry recalled a time when she and her classmates would gather during lunch to prepare for exams. “If there was a test next period, we would all collectively struggle together … I miss the bouncing ideas off of each other in person in that moment,” she said.

Some in the group also pointed out those who may not have a stable home life. “It’s not easy to go to school when they’re in the house. People have used school and friends as their happiness so when that’s taken away from them that’s really hard,” said Bailey Nguyen.

For Joanna Ngo, the virtual quality of school has instilled bouts of restlessness. She said she has struggled with the contrast between the real world and the more virtual school world. “With the social justice movements, it feels like there’s so much going on in the world. Why do we need to focus on school right now through a screen?” she said.

Still, they are managing to power through. They connect with friends online, make shared Google Docs and FaceTime to restore that sense of belonging. Harry says that although they’re struggling, “we’re all kind of in it together.”