Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic took a grip of Wilmington, Marymar Hopkins was laid off from her child care job.
Her three daughters – first, third and seventh graders – were going to school virtually.
“It was difficult because I was the only one and I couldn't work,” Hopkins said.
Her daughters were eating twice as much being home. Money was running out. And crime was escalating in the neighborhood.
In July, bullets went flying through their front door and into the wall and television.
“I end up moving. We went to a hotel,” she said, because she didn’t have enough to pay a security deposit at another rental property.
But without an internet connection at the hotel, the girls couldn’t log into virtual school once the Red Clay School District, which is the largest in Delaware and makes up parts of Wilmington and some of the city's surburbs, resumed classes in September. They missed two months of class.
“It was hard. It was hard,” Hopkins said.
All over the Delaware Valley, parents have struggled with the coronavirus pandemic and online learning. Education experts fear that virtual learning will widen the education gap even further between students of color and the white students who tend to come from better socioeconomic backgrounds.
So far, attendance records for the Red Clay School District and the School District of Philadelphia show a drop in attendance during the virtual learning period for students of color – while in some cases attendance actually improved for white students.
In October 2019, before the pandemic, the average attendance rate for Red Clay’s white students was 96%. It dropped down to 93% in October 2020, following months of virtual learning. But Black and Hispanic students, on the other hand, saw their attendance drop from low-to-mid-90% in October 2019 to below 90% in October 2020.
Philadelphia tracks its attendance by measuring against 95% average attendance, which the district and others consider good attendance. In October 2019, a little more than 77% of white students met the 95% attendance goal. In October 2020, white students had actually improved their attendance to nearly 80%.
Virtual learning had the opposite effect on Black and Hispanic students.
In October 2019, about 69% of Black and Hispanic students met the good attendance mark, but those numbers dropped to about 58% and 59%, respectively, in October 2020.
Experts say having an average attendance below 90% can be detrimental – potentially impacting reading level and increasing the chances that students fail classes and don’t graduating high school.
“The impact is going to be pretty, pretty grave when we look at who has been making progress this year and who hasn't,” said Margie Wakelin, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Education Law Center.
The NBC10 Investigators analyzed data and interviewed officials at school districts in Philadelphia and Wilmington. All said that they have tried to connect all families with the tools needed to learn virtually – laptops and internet hotspots.
But those tools only go so far.
“Students are still not logging on,” Evelyn Nuñez, Philadelphia’s Chief of Schools, said.
Chronic truancy, which is defined as 10 or more unexcused absences, has hovered above 20% for all grades in the School District of Philadelphia during the pandemic.
“There are other factors impacting their ability to consistently maintain engagement in virtual learning,” Nuñez said. “You know, electricity, plumbing, food.”
But some parents say there are still technology issues that prevent their kids from being fully active in online learning.
Jazmine Brennan has been going back and forth with the school district’s IT department over her second grade son’s computer issues.
“This dilemma is really, really detrimental to his education. He's not able to log on. He's not able to participate with this group,” she said.
Her fourth grade son, by contrast, is able to log on and attend virtual school daily.
A spokeswoman for the school district said the district had resolved Brennan’s younger son’s case. But when asked why the child is still not logging on or staying logged into class, the district emailed a statement saying, in part, “We understand that this may be a challenging time for some families and have made available a myriad of supports available to try and remove as many barriers as possible for students during this time outside of school buildings.”
Brennan is working with the Pennsylvania Education Law Center to try to get her son’s access issues resolved.
He isn’t the only one.
Wakelin, of the Education Law Center, said the nonprofit has been flooded with hundreds of complaints about virtual learning issues – mostly from underserved communities.
“How can they be problem-solving with schools to try and address the access issue?” Wakelin said. “Because families, they want their children to be in school. They want them to be learning.”
But sometimes, parents don’t know where to turn for help.
When Hopkins, of Wilmington's Red Clay District, was stuck in a hotel room with her three school-aged daughters, she just assumed that without internet they couldn't attend class. Then, when Red Clay went to a hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning, she didn’t have transportation to get the girls to class.
“I didn't know all the resources in the beginning as far as internet, as far as the laptops, transportation, even down to their school supplies, different things,” she said.
Red Clay’s truancy officers, referred to as visiting teachers, got in touch with Hopkins sometime in late October. They immediately connected the family with hotspots, gift cards for clothes, food and bus passes.
“I'm glad she found out because as soon as she found out, she was like, ‘OK, I'm going to help you get to the point so they can get back to learning,’” Hopkins said of the school official who helped her.
Red Clay’s visiting teachers have seen a spike in referrals regarding students that have missed 10-plus days of unexcused class. During the 2018-2019 school year, the team of truancy officers received an average of 250 referrals each month. So far this 2020-2021 school year, which has been a mix of virtual and in-person, the team has received an average of about 470 referrals each month.
“We’ve seen an increase in our referrals simply because our families have had challenges getting on Zoom, staying on Zoom,” Felicia Bennett, one of the district’s visiting teachers, said.
Bennett said that it was through a federal grant program that the district was able to provide additional help for Hopkins and her girls—including the security deposit and rent assistance for her new home.
Now, Hopkins and the girls are settling into their home. The first and third graders are back to in-person learning four days a week, while the seventh grader is still fully virtual.
So far, Hopkins said they seem to be doing well.
“I had talked to their teachers and at first I was like, ‘Oh, I'm just going to hold them back. It's OK.’ She's like, ‘No, they're really doing really, really good,’” Hopkins said.
But there was a reason for the girls doing so well.
“She had a chance to do a lot of one-on-one with the children,” Hopkins said.
That’s what most educators say will be key once students are back in the classroom: small-group instruction.
Red Clay has already adopted a hybrid model where students are attending in-person some days and staying home for virtual learning other days.
Philadelphia is still working to get students back in classrooms. The current plan is for kindergarten to 2nd-grade students to switch in a hybrid model – similar to Red Clay – by March 1.
Connie Carnivale is the principal at H.A. Brown Elementary School in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. She has seen the chronic truancy rate go from about 2% to 24% since going to fully online learning.
“We're going to have gaps,” when students return to school, she said. “[We’ll] do our small group instruction. We're going to need to assess as soon as they're back in where they are, now that we can have them in person, and build from there.”
In addition to small groups, summer school and extended learning time will also be implemented in both the Red Clay and Philadelphia school districts.
Nuñez, Philadelphia’s Chief of Schools, said that some students will need extended learning time once they are back in the classroom to practice the skills they weren’t able to master during online learning. The learning gap could take some to close, she said.
“We are prepared to address this loss,” Nuñez said.