When the school year started virtually in August, 13-year-old Faith Jackson struggled to participate from her home in New Orleans East.
“It was so hard because I couldn't get in my classes,” Jackson said. “The teachers weren’t answering none of the calls or email or nothing.”
Jackson had a school-provided laptop and hotspot but the internet connection from her home in New Orleans East wasn’t strong enough, she said. She missed class and failed to complete assignments.
When she did manage to connect, it was clear to her that she was falling behind.
“I was crying because I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “They just expected it to be done and I didn’t know how to do that.”
Across the country, stories like Jackson’s have been common since the pandemic forced schools to close and move classes online. Many districts have reported drops in attendance and some have begun to classify chronically absent students as missing.
During virtual learning, New Orleans public schools’ weekly attendance rate was 81 percent — down roughly 10 percent from a typical school year.
Of the thousands of students missing school on any given day, about 180 students, including Jackson, were identified by their schools as at-risk and referred to the district’s rapid response program.
A majority of the district’s 45,000 students come from low-income families, a factor that often makes virtual learning more difficult. To help ensure student access, the district purchased 8,000 hotspots last spring and prepaid for 12 months of unlimited internet access.
Despite this, connectivity has remained a challenge for some families. While individual schools and outside organizations have provided families with additional hotspots, internet access is not always prepaid and some families have struggled to cover ongoing utility fees.
Many low-wage jobs have also been deemed essential since the pandemic began, requiring some parents and guardians to work outside the home and leaving their children to navigate virtual learning on their own.
Elizabeth Ostberg is the executive director of Educators for Quality Alternatives, which manages four New Orleans public schools, one of which is handling rapid response for the district.
Their job is to find missing elementary and middle school students and give them the resources they need to participate in virtual learning. In some cases, that’s meant working with them in-person at The Bridge, a middle school in Central City that normally serves students who have been expelled due to behavioral issues.
“There's definitely a big gap between attendance numbers and obviously who we're serving because we're only serving a small percentage of kids,” Ostberg said.
While there are likely students who have fallen through the cracks, Ostberg said for those who have connected with the program it’s made a huge difference. Faith Jackson agreed.
“If I was at home I would be failing,” she said.
Teaching the ABCs of virtual learning: ‘always be connected’
The Bridge is housed in the Orleans Parish School Board’s spacious Mahalia Jackson facility. There’s plenty of outdoor green space and classrooms are connected by breezeways rather than hallways.
Those are major perks for a school closely following COVID-19 safety standards that include social distancing, mandatory masks and frequent hand washing.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Dean of Students Logan Crowe stood outside with a handful of students, leading them through a group check-in. It was a little after 8 a.m. and several students were still groggy with sleep.
Students answered an icebreaker question and shared how they were feeling. Then Crowe led them through a series of stretches, readying their bodies for computer work.
At first, a student wearing a T-shirt that read, “Guess what? I don’t care,” resisted the group’s efforts. By the end of the check-in, she was smiling and engaged.
The students in the program come from low-income households and a handful are homeless. Many have learning disabilities that make online learning more difficult and some lack English proficiency.
For Crowe, his main job is to keep the students focused on their virtual lessons and make sure they’re prepared to go back to school when regular classrooms reopen.
Closing the circle, Crowe reminded students to follow their ABCs. In Crowe’s classroom, this stands for “always be connected.”
“If you're not in a class, and we've got your schedules, then pull up some Google assignments,” Crowe said. “Guys, your teachers are emailing me saying, ‘Well, they didn't finish that.’ Look at it because when you go back to your home school, I want you to be ready.”
Jackson is one of 30 students who come to The Bridge every day. Unlike learning hubs, where students are expected to complete their work independently, The Bridge is focused on building relationships.
“First and foremost, kids have to feel safe and connected before they can access learning,” Trisha Botello, co-principal of The Bridge said.
With just seven students to a classroom, the support is nearly constant. Counselors check in every day to address social and emotional health needs, while classroom teachers like Crowe are on hand to answer coursework questions and explain concepts.
Students also have time to play outside and take breaks from their work when needed. Botello says this level of support makes a huge difference.
“Sometimes it's all the child needs to know: There's somebody in the room who has listened to me for this minute and is sort of holding space for me in that way,” Botello said.
Creating a bridge back to ‘normal’ school
But the relationships The Bridge is building are temporary. Audie Cerrato, a counselor who spends time working with families in their homes, said he’s already said goodbye to some of his students.
Schools are beginning to reopen and The Bridge is starting to transition back to its normal role serving expelled and at-risk seventh and eighth-graders.
Cerrato said the problem is many of his students aren’t going back to in-person school.
“Speaking with the families, most of them are scared of COVID, and most of these kids go out to the public when they need to,” Cerrato said.
In New Orleans, 40 percent of public school students have opted not to return to the classroom. They’ll continue with virtual learning instead.
Many of the families Cerrato has worked with don’t speak English and their children are classified as ELs or English learners. He said those families are likely to keep their children at home even though their experience with virtual learning has been particularly difficult.
ELs are afforded extra support at school, but Cerrato said it's been difficult for schools to provide those services virtually. He’s stepped in to fill the gap, translating for parents and students.
As he begins to step away and return to his normal role at The Bridge, Cerrato hopes he’s prepared families to stand on their own. In addition to translating and teaching, he’s been focused on building strong relationships between students and their schools so they don’t fall out of touch again.
Earlier this month, Faith Jackson was also preparing to leave The Bridge. Her school was reopening and classes would soon be back in-person. While Jackson said she was excited to return to her school, she was still worried about falling behind.
“I just hope that I can catch on because I don't want to fail like I did last year,” she said. “I barely made it to the grade I’m in now.”
Jackson said school has always been a challenge and The Bridge has shown her what it's like to have small classes and near-constant support.
“They just be cheering me on to help get me through the day at least, cause it’s hard,” Jackson said.
She doesn’t want to leave but knows she can’t stay. At the same time, Jackson said the lessons she’s learned at The Bridge has prepared her for whatever comes next.
“I learned that it’s okay if you mess up because you can always bounce back from that mistake and get it right,” she said. “You always have supportive people around you to encourage you to do more things.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story failed to acknowledge that the 8,000 hotspots purchased directly by the district are prepaid for 12 months of unlimited internet access.