Coronavirus Has U.S. Schools In The Biggest A Distance-Learning Experiment Districts are scrambling to get remote learning lessons in place. But over half of students live near the poverty line, 14% have a learning disability, and some struggle just to find Internet access.

The Biggest Distance-Learning Experiment In History: Week One

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Every U.S. state has closed at least some schools to fight the coronavirus, and some are saying they plan to be closed for the rest of the school year. Millions of educators and parents are improvising to teach students remotely as best they can. Florida is one of the states that's been singled out by the vice president as doing an exceptional job, but as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, they can't yet reach every child.

ROBIN NELSON: You can see me, but I can't see you. All I get to see is your little picture on your ID card. So how's your weekend?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Robin Nelson teaches first grade in Jacksonville, Fla. Her district had just three days last week to retrain 8,000 teachers and have them create remote learning plans. Here she is chatting with her student Sadie Hernandez over an iPad.

NELSON: Are you ready to do this online stuff?


NELSON: Yeah. It's kind of scary, isn't it?

SADIE: Kind of.

NELSON: Kind of. But it's iReady, so we got that. And then we've got WritingCity. And now you know how to meet me in the morning.

KAMENETZ: Nelson, a 10-year veteran teacher, says for remote lessons, teachers at her school are building off the learning software that students were already using, like iReady for math and reading.

NELSON: We are working with some of the computer programs that the kids worked on during some of their school time anyway, so they're familiar with the format. They're familiar with how to use the log-ons and that kind of stuff.

KAMENETZ: Nelson's school, Ortega Elementary, is small and tight-knit. She calls her students my babies, and she misses them.

NELSON: I had one little girl and her family that live in the neighborhood drive by, and she left little, you know, love notes and pictures on my doorstep. And, you know, so yeah, that's the heartbreaking part.


NELSON: Well, 'cause I can't see my kids. Sorry.

KAMENETZ: You really miss them, don't you?

NELSON: I do. It's - you're not a teacher if you can't be with your kids. Computers are not kids. They're not your teacher.

KAMENETZ: There's something else on her mind. Nelson teaches in a high-poverty school, and she estimates only about half of her class actually has a computer at home to work on right now. Others may be borrowing a parent's phone at best. Students without technology access are getting paper homework packets. The district is lending out laptops and mobile hot spot devices, but the high school and middle school students are taking priority for now.

Paula Renfro, chief academic officer of the Duval County schools, says they're doing everything they can to reach students who can't connect online yet.

PAULA RENFRO: We are contacting families through email, telephone each day for those students so that we are connected to them even though it might not be the computer right now to support them.

KAMENETZ: Nelson is worried about many of her students being able to keep up.

NELSON: You have particular kids that you feel like you're really going to try to make an effort to reach because they really are going to fall behind otherwise.

KAMENETZ: Otherwise.

NELSON: I do a monthly tutoring for those kids, and I go out to the communities that are in their housing complex. You know, we do different things. And I don't - I'm not allowed to do that.

JUSTIN REICH: We sometimes talk about the transition from face-to-face learning to online learning as having an online penalty.

KAMENETZ: Justin Reich researches online learning at MIT. He says the research shows online learning comes with an inherent penalty that hurts disadvantaged students the most. Not only are they less likely to have devices or high-speed internet. They're also less likely to have families with the time and energy to coach them along.

REICH: All of the students who we're most worried about in the upcoming pandemic - the students whose parents are most likely to lose their jobs, to be gig workers who are negatively affected, to have inadequate access to health care - those are all the students that we would predict in advance would struggle most in the transition to online learning.

KAMENETZ: Just over half of the nation's public school children are low-income, and many still lack broadband Internet access at home. Because of these inherent inequities, some researchers like Reich are advocating that public schools focus on making up lost learning when things get back to normal through summer school and other remediation. That, of course, would take money.

But so far, the federal Education Department has encouraged schools closing due to coronavirus to pursue distance learning with, quote, "creativity" and, quote, "flexibility" even if they can't reach every student. Still, there are some things even the best technology can't do. Robin Nelson has come up with a way to hug her students over a computer screen.

NELSON: I tell them it's from me, and they can hug themselves. And, you know, they can squeeze as hard as they want to.

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

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