Alisa Meraz-Fishbein is a journalism student in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder. This story was written as part of a package of reporting on COVID-19 by students in Assistant Professor Christine Larson's class, Writing for the Media. All stories have been lightly edited for style and updated based on new information.
Albuquerque, New Mexico—School busses continue to operate across the nation, though without children inside. Instead, they're serving as Wi-Fi hotspots to keep students engaged during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Bus hotspots are one way in which schools have been attempting to provide equal access to students. Since the coronavirus outbreak first prompted schools to move online last spring, the importance of internet and technological devices has continued to grow. In early April, 83% of parents who responded to a Gallup poll said that their K-12 children were doing online school. However, many students do not have internet access, limiting their educational opportunities. The National Center for Education Statistics states that 14% of people ages 5-24 (common age range for students) don’t have internet access at home. As schools continue to grapple with the transition to more distance learning, they have to consider the millions of students nationwide with limited internet and technology access.
Reggie Smith, CEO of the United States Distance Learning Association, said that the “pandemic has uncovered a big gap in how universal access has been provided across America.” This gap affects the success of online learning, as students must have access to certain technologies, including reliable internet, to participate online. Schools have a duty to provide these resources to students so that equitable learning can happen, said Smith, who has noticed a rise in outreach to the distance learning association.
“We’ve had a definite surge in people attending our webinar series,” Smith said, adding that “phone calls and emails to the association have increased.” The association has been helping schools transition to online learning by providing live webinars and pre-recorded lectures, and by partnering with educational organizations to give students free learning resources.
The largest obstacle to online learning is equitable internet and technological access. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, mobile Wi-Fi units have been a way of providing this access. Albuquerque Public Schools stated on their website that administrators, with the help of the City of Albuquerque, were providing “drive-up mobile Wi-Fi units at a number of APS schools and other public locations.” The website also stated that users could drive up to 100 feet of the mobile units and access free Wi-Fi while remaining in their cars to practice social distancing. Additionally, APS has given a Chromebook to families with at least one student.
Not everyone in Albuquerque has been facing this challenge. Students at Albuquerque Academy, a private middle and high school, are required to own a laptop upon enrolling in the eighth grade––whether they purchase it themselves or are given one through financial aid. Therefore, the school hasn't faced the same problems with ensuring that all students have the proper technology. Instead, faculty can focus their energies on online education itself.
Sofia Taylor, a junior at Albuquerque Academy, said her school has been doing a great job of resuming learning.
“There is a lot of email communication; they’re super thorough about the transition,” Taylor said. “We have three-to-four Zoom classes each day, and they’re each 75-minutes long. So I still have a good amount of school,” she said.
While teachers have continued to give out letter grades, Taylor added that the homework load has significantly decreased, as teachers haven't been allowed to assign more than 20 minutes of homework per class period.
Online learning at Albuquerque High School, a member of Albuquerque Public Schools, has been starkly different. Albuquerque High School started using Google Classroom, according to teacher Mara McGough-Madueña. However, their lessons have been limited.
“At Albuquerque High, teachers have to continue to provide material. The material can’t be new, though, it can only be enrichment,” said McGough-Madueña. She added that, since not everyone has equal internet access, “it would be an equity of access problem to teach new material.”
For the same reason, teachers across the Albuquerque Public School district are no longer allowed to assign grades for assignments. Instead, everything is given a pass/fail grade. This has drastically affected the students.
Cole Romig, a junior at Albuquerque High School, has been adjusting to the online system. He said that lessons with teachers via Google Hangouts “haven’t been that beneficial; they’re just different and weird.” Unlike Albuquerque Academy, there has not been a set class schedule. Not all teachers met in realtime; most shared supplemental links and powerpoints with their students and expected them to keep up on their own time. Romig said that this resulted in a lack of purpose.
“I don’t really have an incentive to keep learning,” he said. “We aren’t getting any grades and we aren’t learning anything new, so my motivation is going away.”
Smith, of the United States Distance Learning Association, acknowledged that some students can have trouble engaging with remote learning. He suggested implementing games, scavenger hunts and social hours into the remote classroom to keep students connected and invested in school. However, not all students have had trouble remaining engaged.
“I’ve been able to focus on the classes that I’m most interested in,” said Sofia Sanchez, another Albuquerque High student. Instead of seeing online school as a way to put in less effort, Sanchez has seen it as an opportunity to learn more about her favorite subjects.
Amy Biehl High School, a charter school in Albuquerque, is somewhere in the middle in regards to online accessibility. Executive Director and teacher Stephanie Becker said that all students were given a Chromebook upon enrolling in school. Therefore, much like Albuquerque Academy, Amy Biehl faculty did not have to worry about providing students with a computer. However, Becker said that many students still did not have reliable––if any––internet access.
“We have to make sure to take students’ circumstances into account, especially now,” Becker said. “Some of my students don’t have stable Wi-Fi, so I give extensions and provide them with the material in a different way if needed.”
Amy Biehl High School began offering Zoom classes that followed the school’s regular schedule, though each class was only 30-minutes long. Becker said students were showing up to class even more so than before. Schoolwide, there has been around a 2% increase in student attendance since moving online. Becker attributed this to the fact that students have no longer had to wake up as early, get dressed and drive to school.
Although the school transitioned to pass/fail grades, Becker hasn’t found a decrease in productivity or engagement from students, she said.
“Students that normally engage continue to do so,” she said, “and those who haven’t been paying attention still don’t pay attention. It’s hard to break habits, good and bad.” For students lacking in motivation, Becker suggested meeting with someone, such as a teacher or advisor, to keep the student accountable. “Students should also remember that the material they are learning is going to be important next year. It is still relevant,” she said.
Janet Major, the board president for the United States Distance Learning Association, said she believes that the switch to online learning is dispelling doubts about its feasibility.
“I do believe that fully online learning can be done,” she said. “Attendance can be improved. People don’t have to drive to class, and they can do a lot at a distance.” For now, her primary goal continues to be ensuring that the public has access to the technology to allow distance learning to take place. The United States Distance Learning Association has been doing so by “helping people write grants for federal money,” Major said.
“Grants include things like telecom and technology, which are really important right now,” she said.
It appears that some form of online learning may be the norm for a while. However, Major believes that “by stretching their imaginations and being creative, teachers will continue to be able to provide an enriching curriculum for students.”