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The Pandemic's Impact On Vulnerable Students

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It's been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed our public education system, forcing a dramatic and unprecedented shift to online learning. But some students were more impacted by this method of learning than others, among them the most vulnerable students. Students experiencing poverty, English language learners and those with special education needs faced more learning obstacles than others. What is the takeaway on the impact of distance learning on vulnerable students a year later? Find out in this episode of San Diego Conversations.

Michael Paredes (00:00):
It's felt like we're, we're building the plane as we fly it. I think a lot of us have felt that way.
Andrew Bracken (00:06):
Michael Paredes is the principal at the Monarch school, a charter school in San Diego, serving students who have experienced homelessness, much like schools all over the country. The Monarch school had to switch gears rapidly when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, as it shifted from in-person to distance learning.
Michael Paredes (00:25):
The challenge I think is that, is that we're missing that physical connection with our students, but we're doing everything we can to maintain that daily connection. What we're doing right now. It, it, it doesn't, it doesn't mirror what we were able to do with our students in person. And so I really, you know, it's hard to say, I know the time's going to tell, I know that our, that, that all of our teachers, you know, across the County, across the nation right now are doing their best to assess our students' individual learning needs. And that's hard to do virtually. So it's like a question that's unanswered. And I think we're going to see how that's going to play out over the next few years.
Andrew Bracken (01:04):
Welcome to San Diego conversations, the collaboration between KPBS and the national conflict resolution center covering important issues affecting the San Diego region. I'm Andrew Bracken. It's no secret that the pandemic has brought enormous challenges to our kids and how they learn. None felt the impacts as much as vulnerable students, whether they're trying to learn English suffering from housing instability requiring special education services or any combination of these, the pandemic has had extreme effects on this wide ranging group of learners. The term vulnerable students can mean a lot of different things. In this episode, we focus on three different types of students, each with unique challenges, which have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Andrew Bracken (01:53):
We'll get started after the short break.
Andrew Bracken (02:07):
The original event on vulnerable students took place on September 15th of 2020. Again, here's Michael Pettis from the Monarch school.
Michael Paredes (02:15):
You know, initially when we all went into closure, you know, the thinking that was that we might just be closed for a few weeks. So initially the goal was what can we do to provide that support, to get through the next few weeks? Because so many of our families are so closely connected to our school. Some of our families had some housing needs and they got put into some temporary housing situations and some nearby hotels. Our case managers are reaching out a couple of times per week minimum to our families to see if there are any immediate needs, making sure that if there are any connection issues, technology needs kind of serving as liaisons, sometimes between myself and other staff members just providing that support and that connection to the families. You know, we've got families who are experiencing their own turmoil, right? We have families that have lost jobs, parents that are continuing to work, and then also, you know, serve as caregivers to their children and even teachers at home, our families are able to come up to the school site on schedule distribution days to receive academic support material, hygiene products, a well-rounded lunch and gift cards, uh, so that, you know, we can ensure that the family is able to go shopping and acquire whatever it is that they need during this difficult time.
Leticia Avelar (03:46):
So basically it's like, um, it's a show.
Andrew Bracken (03:52):
Leticia Avelar joined the event and provided a unique perspective, being both a special education teacher, as well as a single mother of two sons with autism,
Leticia Avelar (04:00):
I will be online. And my son's kind of will get online at around 11 or 12. And they're on there with their teachers. Luckily my older son is very independent, so he can somewhat, you know, function and do the online learning. But my younger son needs extra support to just interact with the teachers. He still doesn't somewhat understand that this is school. School is on the computer and at home. So he requires a lot of support, but because I'm teaching around the same times that he's online on the computer, I have to like pick and choose what times he can participate, what he can and can't do. So it's been very difficult to just facilitate the whole online learning thing from my point of view, as a parent.
Jorge Cuevas Antillon (04:43):
Well, certainly English learners are one of the most vulnerable groups within the distance learning situation.
Andrew Bracken (04:52):
Jorge Cuevas Antillon participated in the original event and is advisor for English learners at the San Diego County Office of Education.We followed up with him in March of 2021 to get a sense of where things stood for English language learners.
Jorge Cuevas Antillon (05:05):
We need to have students to have an opportunity to be able to interact. And all the normal cues that you would need to interact are somewhat contrived within an online setting. You're not going to get the same kind of input or interaction that you would have otherwise in, in a, in a live classroom situation. The other thing is that the range of possibilities of languages is quite limited, um, in an online setting using a word like a doorknob. You know, if you're not part of a household that speaks English and, and that word, uh, you know, shows up in context in a physical classroom, that's an example of words that have sort of lost opportunities when it's virtual only, cause you're not going to see a door knob necessarily. One thing I think we've come to recognize is how important the teacher is to the role of socializing students and how important schooling is to just a student's normal human development that it's interacting with with others and negotiating meaning and, uh, learning to get along. That really has to happen in person.
Andrew Bracken (06:07):
For Leticia, the challenge of being a single mother of two special needs kids coupled with her role as a special needs teacher at the same time, grew overwhelming over the course of the school year.
Leticia Avelar (06:18):
In my personal life, things sort of imploded. My older son started going through puberty and that could bring difficulties for someone who has disabilities and staying home and having the activities that he enjoy enjoys being closed and not interacting with his peers, made the situation worse. My younger son wasn't getting the attention that he needed. Um, so trying to juggle what I had going on at home and what I was doing in the classroom, it became a big struggle and I started to burn out trying to juggle it.
Andrew Bracken (07:00):
When we come back, Leticia lets us know how our family is faring now.
Jorge Cuevas Antillon (07:21):
The plans for returning to school really vary according to school district charter school, um, even in some cases specific sites. So I guess the biggest change is that, uh, basically almost every student in the County now has access to internet and a device to be able to participate in education. But more recently, a major changes that some of the schools have started reopening partially. So we have hybrid education. When I say hybrid, we're talking about the fact that some students are in school,, distance learning. We don't have all the kids necessarily on a campus. At the same time, I had to help a district come up with a plan for team teaching situation for a bilingual setting with hybrid, which is complex because some of the kids are not coming back at all or the kids are coming back for two days a week. Somebody gets to coming, but there are two teachers and one of them has got delivered in Spanish when it got delivered in English. And it has to be across the day. So either the kids have to move, which is not ideal, or the teachers have to move and not all the teachers wanted to come back. So talk about being a conundrum.
Leticia Avelar (08:31):
So for our district phase one in person services were optional for teachers to participate in. So my sons have not had any in-person learning. And because of my situation with having my kids full time and being a single parent, I wasn't available to do in-person services. As for my students, you know, they're not getting the in-person services, but they've done a great job working in accommodating my situation. They understand that I'm not able to put my son online when they're online sometimes. So the, the related service providers work, their schedules around my situation. And they're online during the times that my son's online,
Andrew Bracken (09:13):
In addition to our own children, Leticia has had other special needs kids in her life: her students.
Leticia Avelar (09:19):
As far as my students, it was very difficult. It's it still is sometimes very difficult to get them to actively participate in distance learning. Like I come on zoom and I see, you know, seven to 11 blank squares every day. And sometimes, um, they don't answer me sometimes. I feel like I'm just sitting there talking for an hour and a half. So I've had to try to like implement different strategies when they wouldn't answer out I'll play crickets. Like I'll go on YouTube and just like play the sound of crickets that got old. Like they were like, why do you do that all the time? So I got a magic eight ball and I'd be like, are they done with slide nine? Yes or no. And I'd wait for about three minutes. And if I didn't get an answer, I would just shake this magic eight ball and magic eight ball says yes. And then that's when they'd be like, no, we're not done. We're not done. I feel like, you know, sometimes I've, I'm a YouTube streamer, cause I'm just sitting here talking to myself,
Andrew Bracken (10:35):
Plans differ across school districts as well as individual schools. The majority of San Diego public and charter schools are targeting to reopen for more in-person learning starting in April of 2021 as the transition from distance to in-person learning begins. There's a lot of discussion about learning loss. Jorge though, prefers to use a more positive term when it comes to thinking about children's returned to the classroom.
Jorge Cuevas Antillon (10:59):
There is a sort of a damning of, uh, students, um, by, by that kind of talk, it is true that we are not able to learn in a maximized way, but to think of students as being sort of, uh, limited or broken is a very disturbing trend that could come out of, uh, labels that are like that. A big focus is acceleration and that's better talk. Uh, when, when you're talking about, uh, uh, students, you know, it's not a matter of saying that they have to catch up, but rather that we need to move them forward. They've been learning. And of course I'll be at, they're not learning in the best circumstances and not perhaps learning at the normal pace, but you know, we all the time who those of us who work in education will tell you that the kids are capable of doing a lot. And that they're resilient when, when offered the kind of environments that allow them to thrive.
Leticia Avelar (11:54):
For me, I'm sort of a pretty prideful person when it's come to raising my two boys, because I'm a single parent
Andrew Bracken (12:01):
As the weeks and months passed and distance learning trudged along Leticia gained some needed perspective along the way.
Leticia Avelar (12:09):
My biggest downfall sometimes is that I don't know how to say, Hey, I need help. So I needed to, you know, get over that and start asking family members that I have close to me to say, Hey, um, can you help me here? Can you pick one of them up? Or both of them? I have a meeting here that's been a big help for me is, is realizing that, you know, it's okay to say you can't do this and you need some help. So that sort of changed things. It also helped me realize that I don't have to like quote unquote, hide what's going on at my house or be in fear of judgment because my kids are who they are. My, my sons are always going to be who they are. And, and, um, because of who they are is what has brought me on my journey to become a special education teacher. So it's, it's helped me learn a lot in both aspects.
Andrew Bracken (13:04):
Perhaps Leticia's greatest achievement this past year is learning to let go of perfect and instead focus on what can realistically work for her and her family. Through unprecedented times,
Leticia Avelar (13:15):
I had to say, Hey, this is what's going on in my life. My roles are blended and we're going to work on it. We're going to fix it. And we're going to continue. It was more about me understanding I'm setting unrealistic expectations for me, for them. And it got better after that. When I kind of was like, this is what's going on, I'm doing the best that I can. They're doing the best that they can. And we just went with it.
Andrew Bracken (13:40):
Though we don't yet know the long-term impact school closures will have on vulnerable students of all types. Jorge sees one bright spot that has come from a tumultuous year of learning.
Jorge Cuevas Antillon (13:52):
I think this thing has taught us that online learning is, is not necessarily for everyone. And it's more, more kids thrive from being in each other's company and before a teacher.
Jorge Cuevas Antillon (14:04):
That's the part that I'm grateful about is that people recognizing that schooling is more than just educating your kids. It's actually keeping the society.
Andrew Bracken (14:21):
Thanks for joining us. San Diego conversations is a collaboration between KPPs and the national conflict resolution center to learn more, visit our website at kpbs.org/san Diego conversations. This program is produced by me, Andrew Bracken for KPBS Linda Ball and Trisha Richter or coordinators KPBS education reporter Joe Hong, the original event. Emily Jankowski is technical director, Kinsee Morlan's podcast coordinator, Lisa Jane Morrisette is operations manager, and John Decker is interim associate general manager.
Speaker 5 (15:07):
Thanks also to Ashley Maguire. Thanks again for listening.

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San Diego Conversations

San Diego Conversations is a podcast that continues the dialogue from "Community Conversations," a KPBS and National Conflict Resolution Center program devoted to educational discussions on issues important to our region. Pick up the story where “Community Conversations” left off with this podcast series. Hear solutions-focused discussions on the U.S. Census, COVID’s impact on education, police reform and vulnerable students.