TO HELP DISTANCE LEARNING ABSENTEES, EDUCATORS GO SLEUTHING
AppleMagazine|AppleMagazine #451
After a knock on his door, third-grade student Jamie-Lee emerged to see his school principal smiling at him from his doorstep. She held out her arms, offering a socially distant “air hug,” and told the boy how much she’d missed him since the pandemic closed their school building.

As they chatted, Principal Tayarisha Batchelor picked up on a clue to the question that brought her to the apartment. The boy was not looking up from a smartphone. Twice, she asked what he was doing on it before he confirmed her suspicions: He was playing video games.

“I like playing games,” Batchelor told the boy as his parents looked on, before suggesting he spend more time first on his daily schoolwork. “I want to make sure you’re still learning, OK?”

Nearly a third of her students at Rawson Elementary School in Hartford, Connecticut, have been unplugged from distance learning. On a Friday afternoon, as she visited some of their homes, she saw many of the reasons why: Internet service is unreliable. Parents are away at work. Some are uncomfortable with the technology. Still others think their children are doing fine when they are actually using the devices for other things.

As the academic year nears an end, districts around the country have been racing to get large numbers of no-show students back on track. It’s one thing not to participate this spring, when expectations are lower because of the crisis. It will be another if distance learning resumes in the fall, when the stakes are raised by the return of formal grading and attendance tracking.

Students who were struggling before the pandemic are the ones falling farthest behind. Across the Hartford school system, roughly 80% of students are at least partially active in distance learning. Among students considered most at risk because of issues including past absenteeism, disciplinary problems, and poor academic performance, less than half are participating at all.

Batchelor made her first stop the home of a student whose mother works late, hoping to catch her. The girl’s older sister, a high school student, often watches her. But there was no answer at the door. Batchelor left a voicemail on the mother’s phone.

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