The learning gap: Distance learning exacerbates issues with distracting at-home situations, limited resources and social isolation

May 25, 2021

In a physical classroom, senior Anika Lakhani is always engaged. Yet on Zoom meetings, she struggles to find the same connections. “I think the biggest thing that students are missing is meaningful collaboration,” she said. “Some of the best moments and the richest learning at school happens when you’re working on a challenge problem with someone in class, or even if you’re just explaining something to a friend who’s confused. Breakout rooms just don’t replace that. It’s a lot harder for people to be warm and genuine and collaborative online because it’s just so much easier to tune out and not put in an effort.”

Many students share Lakhani’s feelings of disconnection in the online setting, including junior Joseph Abadi, who moved to Gunn from Panama fewer than two months ago to escape his online learning environment. “At home, I had my cellular and my family distracting me,” Abadi said. “It’s much different being in school, in class, with a professor in front of me.” For Abadi, the promise of in-person learning at Gunn motivated him to leave his high school in Panama, which still held classes remotely, and move to Palo Alto, where his older sister lives. Despite the complications of adjusting to a new town, language and environment, Abadi felt that the difference between an engaging in-person education and the Zoom meetings offered at his former high school was reason enough to move.

Lakhani and Abadi’s situations reflect a recent phenomenon: online learning has created a lack of engagement and has isolated both students and teachers, especially those who rely on social interactions to succeed.

Disadvantaged Students

Upon first glance, it may appear that privilege exists across all communities at Gunn. Most students do “very well,” according to Assistant Principal Pier Angeli La Place; they have the support and resources they need to succeed in Gunn’s environment. “It’s easy to adopt a narrative of ‘that’s good enough,’” La Place said. “But 15% to 20% [of students] don’t survive under our system, because the system wasn’t designed to work for them.” This minority of students faces more obstacles to success—whether it be an English language barrier or lack of familial support with academics. Online learning, which relies on stable internet access and a quiet learning environment for success, has only perpetuated the pre-existing learning gap between students with resources and those without.

For students who have technological issues or disruptive home environments, the pandemic has made it even harder to learn productively, if they can attend class at all. In English teacher Danielle Whichard’s Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) classes, a good portion of her students have issues with connectivity and access to technology on any given day. In addition, many students have familial obligations that they must attend to, which distract from class. “I have a lot of students who are the primary caretakers for younger siblings especially earlier on in the pandemic before childcare became more open or accessible to families,” Whichard said. “They had to balance either overseeing their siblings in their classes, or, if their siblings were younger than [school age], helping actually watch the little kids while trying to do their own schooling.”

At Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto, eighth grade math teacher Harriette Huang has noticed similar distractions for her students, many of whom live in crowded households. “Their families usually have multiple kids, and if their parents have to go to work, my students become babysitters,” Huang said. “Their siblings are running around in the house.” As a result of their crowded living situations, Huang’s students often turn off their cameras, creating a less engaging classroom environment. Other difficulties for Huang include the language barrier with her primarily Spanish-speaking students and other familial responsibilities.

District Response

La Place, who has worked in the district for over 30 years, acknowledges that our educational system is oftentimes too rigid for adaptations. However, the pandemic has forced the district to change learning requirements to better meet the needs of all students and families. “The silver lining in the pandemic is that nobody has been able to ignore the inequities of our system,” La Place said.

The silver lining in the pandemic is that nobody has been able to ignore the inequities of our system.”

— Assistant Principal Pier Angeli la Place

To combat the prevalent issue of lack of engagement, the district has reopened in-person school, which is now available for all students four days a week. Although a low percentage of students have returned to campus full-time, the district has been able to support students like Abadi, who has a home environment that makes it difficult to focus, and students who need social engagement. Together, La Place refers to this group of individuals as the “school-reliant” population.

To avoid students becoming trapped in a metaphorical “hole”—the hole of missing assignments, sinking grades and the overwhelming feeling of falling behind—administrators also monitor attendance. If they notice patterns of absence, administrators reach out to teachers, who then reach out to students to provide support. “The teachers’ role is to create a ladder so students can climb out [of the hole],” La Place said. “The first rung is communication: asking what teachers can do to support students.” Then, a group of administrators, counselors and parents meet with students to discuss future accommodations, which often include letting go of nonessential assignments or providing extended time on tests.

Increased Teacher Support

Throughout the pandemic, teachers have had to intervene with students on numerous occasions, even more than in non-COVID years. After realizing the difficulty of online learning, math teacher Kathy Hawes always assumes the best intentions. “I ask [my students], ‘Are you okay, how can I help you?’” Hawes said. “I don’t say in an angry voice, ‘Why didn’t you take the quiz? You’re in deep trouble. I’m mad at you.’” With recommendation from the administration, Hawes offers what she calls “special deals” to help students who are struggling in her classes. These “special deals” typically consist of a reduced number of assignments to alleviate the stress of passing the class. “I look at the core work that needs to be done to show me that students understand [the material],” Hawes said. Otherwise, Hawes, like every other teacher, runs the risk of no longer being able to help her students who become stuck in the metaphorical “hole.”

Chinyoung Shao

Whichard also meets with students individually every class period to assess their performance and provide support. She emphasizes flexibility and taking the time to learn about students’ situations and why they may or may not be able to engage with the class to their fullest potential. In cases where students live with immunocompromised family members or are unable to obtain resources such as school supplies on their own, Whichard has dropped off resources at students’ houses, resulting in longer workdays.

Huang has also noticed a steep increase in hours helping students; on any given day, she can spend up to three hours in office hours tutoring students. “When we were in person, kids could help each other,” Huang said. “They could peer tutor and chat about homework, and that really, really helped many kids.” In an online learning environment, however, students—especially those who do not turn on their camera for personal reasons—have difficulty connecting with one another, leaving the teacher responsible to help every student individually.

Looking Forward

Overall, the district and teachers have taken steps to accommodate students during the pandemic. Still, for some, it hasn’t felt like enough. The pandemic has exposed inequality issues, made mental health resources less accessible and impacted students’ learning experiences. “For me, it feels like COVID-19 pointed out that we have a communication issue,” Whichard said.

La Place emphasized the importance of including student voice in decisions related to student needs. “Often, adults will sit in a room and decide what the problem is,” La Place said. “In the future, we need to work to amplify the voices of students who are being impacted.”

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The learning gap: Distance learning exacerbates issues with distracting at-home situations, limited resources and social isolation