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Internet access, attendance among distance learning challenges

Taking attendance used to be a basic start of a class period — the teacher would just put a checkmark next to a student's name.

Parents called the office to report a sick child or a school staff person called a parent to check up on a student. Chronic absentees might get a knock on the home door by an attendance official.

Under COVID-19 distance learning, tracking attendance for the thousands of students is consuming more of administrators’ time, with school technology staff, city human services agencies and private internet service providers brought in to help.

Internet access is the new school bus to transport students to online classes and is the focal point of ensuring all students have equal access to education. That’s especially difficult for low-income families who have relied on local libraries — now closed — for computer and internet access.

In Norwich, as of April 13, school officials had identified 186 students who hadn’t attended any remote learning during the first two weeks. Absenteeism ranged from 1% to 10% of a school population. Uncas Elementary School had 26 students, or 10%, absent, and Kelly Middle School, the city’s largest school, had 59 students absent, 9% of the population.

Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the district initially identified 35 families with no Wi-Fi access. Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes has spent hours connecting families with the two free months of Wi-Fi offered by Comcast. Gomes' office has paid back bills for six families to get them reconnected to Comcast.

“I personally spent four hours on the phone with Comcast on behalf of one family,” Gomes said. “These clients don’t have cellphone minutes to do this on their own. We have paid off a number of back balances through our funds, because we think it is a good investment for families and students.”

During this past week's April vacation, Norwich administrators worked extra time to improve attendance come Monday, Stringfellow said.

Norwich principals sent letters to the 186 students not attending remote classes, offering help to get children connected. If families don’t respond, school residency/attendance officer Ed Peckham might do “front porch” visits.

“We know the governor has extended school closure to May 20,” Stringfellow said, “and we want to make sure they are attending and are on track. We feel the sporadic attendance will get better once we start daily tracking on Monday.”

Hot spots can help

The New London school district has completed two weeks of distance learning, and school officials reported varying degrees of participation — 90% of elementary students, 81% of middle school students and 83% of high school students engaged in the second week.

New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said she recognizes some families have hardships with access to technology and learning. Challenges include Wi-Fi, language barriers, health issues, lack of food, stress regarding economic hardships and mental health issues.

“Some families are struggling with finding the time to support their child, as there are two working parents, or a single parent that is working,” Ritchie said. “Others are struggling to get into the platforms we are using (password help, etc.).”

The district has posted a list of a dozen Wi-Fi hot spots available throughout the city on its website, www.newlondon.org.

“In addition to our cycle of regular phone calls home to all students, we are continuing to reach out to support any family with these access needs on an individual basis,” Ritchie said.

Teaching platforms include technology, hands-on art and science projects, as well as at-home exercises and strategies for mental and physical health and mindfulness. School officials are examining student participation in the various education technology platforms.

Since distance learning began on March 30 in New London, 42,485 posts have been made on SeeSaw, used for elementary schools, including assignments, teachers’ posts and student responses.

“Therefore, we need to comb through a variety of attendance measures to evaluate every students’ attendance and progress thus far and will continue to do so,” Ritchie said.

The New London district sent out a survey last week to families on how distance learning is going. The survey is live on newlondon.org. The data will be analyzed to realign programming where needed, Ritchie said.

“With anything new, we are expecting to have to make adjustments to aim to best meet the needs of all,” she said. “Our work thus far truly exemplifies teamwork. All adults are continuing to learn just as much as the students daily.”

Providing Chromebooks

Norwich Free Academy, the region’s largest high school with more than 2,300 students from eight partner district towns, started distance learning April 1. Norwich is a state-designated Alliance District. Statewide, high schools in Alliance Districts received 60,000 free laptops for students from the state at the start of distance learning. But despite a plea, NFA didn’t qualify.

NFA did provide Chromebook laptops from its collection for nearly 400 students who requested them, but not all have picked them up at the school. NFA referred students to the various offers of Wi-Fi connections.

“The other important part is we have an IT team of eight people acting like a tech support vehicle for students and faculty,” said Michael O’Farrell, NFA director of communications. “Even after the Chromebooks get handed out, families have called looking for guidance. They’ve been working very hard, so that’s been a big thing for us.”

NFA is not taking attendance but teachers are monitoring student participation. The teacher, house principal, a guidance counselor, coaches or social worker might contact students not engaged, O’Farrell said.

Kate Ericson, executive director of LEARN, a regional education service that operates several independent magnet schools in the region, said by email that in the past four weeks the barriers to participation at its schools are access to technology and hot spots.

“LEARN has distributed almost 400 electronic devices amongst our elementary and middle school students,” she said, and LEARN is considering paying for personal hot spots for the few families who do not have Wi-Fi access.

According to LEARN, at its Friendship School in Waterford, 86% of prekindergarten and kindergarten students are enrolled and active in Google Classroom. At its Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, 97% of kindergarten through fifth grade students are signed in and connected. The Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in Waterford is seeing 70% of students completing weekly assignments. At the Marine Science Magnet High School in Groton and Three Rivers Middle College in Norwich, 90% of students are submitting work.

'Live lessons' a challenge

The Groton school district provided students with about 1,400 Chromebooks it had been using in schools, Superintendent Michael Graner said. Distance learning started slow, with many schools reporting about half their students had not logged onto the system. Social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists have reached out to families to determine the obstacles, he said.

Groton, with some exceptions, now has nearly 100% participation, Graner said, with lack of internet access the biggest barrier.

About 135 families needed internet access, so the school district used an education discount to order hot spot Wi-Fi devices, expected to be delivered soon, he said. The Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Elementary School, Claude Chester Elementary School and West Side STEM Magnet Middle School had the highest numbers of families in need of internet access.

More teachers are now doing “live lessons” in virtual classrooms instead of prerecorded lessons. Students and teachers alike prefer the real-time personal contact, Graner said, but scheduling can be difficult.

“If you have two or three kids in a home, the problem is everybody can’t go on at 9 o’clock, so the coordination of these live lessons is itself a challenge,” he said.

High school students were used to turning in online assignments through the Schoology program, and it has been helpful for students to receive a week’s worth of assignments and set their own schedules, Graner said. The biggest learning curve has been for younger students.

“We’ve had parents say to us that the best time for them to help their children is on the weekend, and so we’re trying to build in all this flexibility,” Graner said. “It’s so individual to the child and the family.”

The district is doing surveys of students and teachers to see what issues they face. Teachers are finding it more time-consuming to create online lessons than classroom lessons, he said.

He said coordinating class schedules and building flexibility into distance learning, along with encouraging collaboration among teachers and reaching out to families, have helped the district engage more students.

Hamster heads home

Distance teaching has changed everything for NFA science teacher Seth Yarish, whose marine science classroom is a menagerie of Long Island Sound sea life, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and even hissing cockroaches. Students test water conditions, take health and growth readings of the animals, feed and care for them and do in-depth research on the species.

Some classes are unified, with regular and special education students teaming up on hands-on lessons. Yarish doesn’t assign homework and relies heavily on in-class student participation.

The Long Island Sound creatures were collected on trips with Project Oceanology, and Yarish released some of them when school closed. Some lizards and the classroom hamster went home with Yarish or with some students. He and fellow science teacher Ryan Czaja, who has aquariums of tropical fish and sea life, have been going to school three days a week to feed and check on the remaining animals.

With distance teaching, Yarish has tried different interactive lessons. He asked students to go outside to observe and photograph an animal and research the species. He is seeking parents’ permission to allow students in the unified classes to contact one another and continue their team learning.

He said about 15 of his more than 100 students haven’t responded to online lessons. A few students have emailed him saying they are stressed at home and couldn’t do classwork. Yarish has set flexible time schedules for students to post their work, mindful that many students have picked up more hours at their after-school jobs at fast-food restaurants or local grocery stores.

“I have four or five students always right there, ready to go, because they are so bored,” Yarish said.

Day Staff Writers Greg Smith and Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that Norwich Free Academy provided Chromebooks from its collection to students.

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