On a recent day under a light drizzle, Alyssa Andrews and Anna Hester stood in a school parking lot in unincorporated Pierce County, going over their plans to visit families of middle-school students who haven’t been logging on to remote classes.
The two of them are counselors at Keithley Middle School. KNKX has been following the experiences of educators and students at the school, where three-quarters of students come from low-income families, in this unprecedented year of disruptions due to the pandemic.
Andrews said they had three families to visit.
“Two of them live right by each other, and then the other one is in an apartment,” she said. “All tech issues, really.”
At Keithley and for most kids in Washington state, school has taken place through a screen for almost an entire year. But some students have disengaged. They’re not logging on, and they’re not turning in assignments. Reaching them requires more than sending an email or leaving a voicemail. It requires the very thing that’s lacking in this age of remote school – face-to-face contact.
That’s why Andrews and Hester knocked on the door of a townhouse. The student who lives there recently moved back from out of state and had not been logging on. It turns out the family lacked internet access, and Hester has been working to help them get connected through a discounted service from Comcast.
A woman came to the door, and Hester introduced herself, explaining that she wanted to check about the internet service.
“I wanted to know if the equipment’s been picked up and if it’s working and if it’s doing what it’s supposed to,” she said.
The woman told her that it’s working now, and then the student came to the door. Hester broke into a smile that could be heard in her voice, even beneath her face mask.
“I’m Ms. Hester. I’m your counselor. It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’ve been talking to your family a lot, just making sure you’re OK. We want to make sure we get you back in class, because your teachers miss you.”
DELIVERING FOOD AND TECH HELP
Working closely with students is why Hester and Andrews chose their jobs, but this school year has been very different. Sometimes they’re delivering bags of food to families. Sometimes they’re almost like door-to-door tech support. Hester said they help students figure out things like Wi-Fi hotspots or how to log into the learning platforms.
“Sometimes it’s confusing, and it’s also hard to learn when maybe I’m not familiar with using email or I haven’t used this platform,” she said. “How do I figure that out when I might have my parents or other family member out working making sure I have food?"
What’s clear after knocking on doors with them is that even now, six months into the school year, remote learning is a huge lift just from a technological standpoint.
At another house, the mom came to the door and said her daughter’s laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot have not been working. Hester told her this is an issue they’ve encountered before.
“The computer needs to be updated,” Hester said.
“So she’s really having problems? She wasn’t fibbing to me?” the mom said. KNKX agreed not to use her name to protect her privacy.
Hester and Andrews said yes.
“Because it stressed her out. She just kind of gave up,” the woman said. “OK then, I won’t be so mad.”
'I WISH IT WAS DIFFERENT'
Keithley Middle School Principal Tom Edwards said he’s not surprised that the home visits center largely around tech issues.
“I wish it was different, but that’s sort of one practical feature that makes online learning extremely difficult,” he said.
And these tech barriers are not unique to the Franklin Pierce district. A recent report from the Technology Alliance says as many as 200,000 kids across the state lack reliable internet access.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal is pushing the Legislature to take action.
“They need to guarantee dollars for school districts to connect all families who don’t have access and make sure the dollars are only used for that purpose,” Reykdal said. “And then the second one is a little out of my scope here, but is certainly going to be needed, which is large infrastructure buildout, either wired or wireless, and that’s probably a partnership with the feds.”
Beyond tech issues, remote learning presents other hurdles. Edwards, the Keithley principal, says at least a quarter of students are disengaged, to some extent. Some only occasionally log on. Some connect regularly but never turn in work. He said the reasons vary – some students take care of younger siblings during the day.
“That’s a challenge when you’re trying to be an engaged learner at home with some of the things they’re having to do at home,” he said.
Other students are logging into class from a car because they have no place to live. And some have lost motivation. Edwards said it became clear partway through first semester at Keithley Middle School that students were falling behind -- just like at schools all around the region.
“We had 830 students enrolled, and 770 had at least one incomplete,” he said. “So nearly every student at mid-semester had at least one incomplete, which is just unheard of.”
He said teachers are working with students to help them catch up and have made progress.
When students are still not engaging, Hester and Andrews show up. Andrews said she values the chance to connect with kids.
“I find joy in going to families’ homes because I get to see them,” she said. “We have a lot of sixth-graders we’ve never seen before, and that’s new for us to be like, 'Oh, we don’t even know you.’ ”
And families seem to appreciate the effort. At the house where the student’s laptop needed to be updated, the mom said she’s grateful.
“If you guys didn’t show up, I’d still be sitting here thinking she’s just giving me a hard time and not doing her work, and then here she falls behind, but it’s kind of half our fault, but kind of not our fault because we don’t know it’s not updated,” she said. “We just think we’re doing something wrong.”
In fact, these kinds of tech issues take an emotional toll on families. This mom said she was doubting her daughter and thinking she was trying to get out of doing her assignments, but then saw how upset she was.
“She would come to me literally with tears and say, 'Mom, are they going to hold me back? What’s going to happen with my schooling? Can we look at it today again?’ And she’d try to log in and it wouldn’t, so I was thinking I was just stupid and I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was following the directions,” she said. “It’s hard.”
But Hester and Andrews made it clear the tech issues are not her fault. And they deliver one more big piece of information: Her daughter can go back to school in person soon.
“I’m in acceptance to that,” the mom said. “And does she still do computer stuff at home?”
“Yeah,” Hester said.
“So both?” the mom said.
“Yes. So you would like to have her on campus, though?” Hester asked.
“Yes, that’s fine,” the mom said.
Keithley will bring sixth-graders back to classrooms later this week and seventh- and eighth-graders next week. Students who choose that hybrid model will divide their time at home and at school.
The job that Hester and Andrews do will change yet again. But they say they hope to continue doing home visits and supporting students in this very unusual year.