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Many Teachers Struggling To Contact Students As Distance Learning Programs Launch

Graphic for Learn at Home Resources During the COVID-19 Pandemic from PBS Lea...

Credit: KQED/ PBS LearningMedia

Above: Graphic for Learn at Home Resources During the COVID-19 Pandemic from PBS LearningMedia.

As schools across San Diego County prepare to officially launch their distance learning programs amid the pandemic, many teachers are struggling to connect with their students.

This is fueling concerns that preexisting learning disparities will only be exacerbated with distance learning because so many students lack access to the proper technology and don’t have home environments conducive to online classes.

Kris Elam, a teacher at Sweetwater High School, said she’s made contact with less than half of her 176 students. She’s not sure how many just don’t have a device to respond and how many are preoccupied with taking care of siblings or work.

“Even the kids I have heard from have indicated that they’re not gonna be mentally or physically present for learning just because of the obligations they have,” Elam said.

RELATED: Vulnerable Student Groups Could Fall Behind In Distance Learning

During a board meeting on Monday evening, Sweetwater Union High School District administrators said 7,500 of its 37,000 students have not yet been reached. At San Diego Unified School District, the administration is not yet collecting district-wide figures, but individual schools have been keeping track.

Jennifer Hollow, a teacher at Baker Elementary in southeast San Diego, said she’s only reached about half of the families in her class.

“Some phone numbers have been disconnected, other families might be in Mexico,” Hollow said. “I think now more than ever, I want to reassure them and help answer questions.”

Part of the reason for this lack of connectivity is family incomes. At Baker Elementary, more than 95% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Meanwhile, at Patrick Henry High School, where about 40% of students are considered low income, teachers have had more success in reaching students.

Only 126 of the school’s 2,493 students have not been reached, according to Principal Listy Gillingham.

“My special education students and my English Learners are hard to reach sometimes. I asked my special ed case managers to reach out to families directly,” Gillingham said. “I hope to reach everybody, that is the goal.”

San Diego Unified has been distributing Chromebooks since it started its “soft launch” on April 6. During Monday’s board meeting, Sweetwater Union High School District’s board approved a $1.55 million purchase for 3,100 Chromebooks to prepare for distance learning.

While districts are hoping distributing devices will increase the number of responses from students, Kris Elam said the struggle to reach certain students is just the start of the inequities of distance learning.

“You cannot move forward in an equitable way. Because even if I give these kids a device and wifi, I can’t control for their home situations,” she said. “We have a lot of families who live six people in a single room so there’s no way to kind of say, hey, just find a quiet spot and work.”

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

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Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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