It’s been 5 weeks and thousands of Utah students still haven’t logged on for school amid the coronavirus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Valerie Gates, a teacher at West High School, is trying to help her students with their online learning, Monday April 20, 2020

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West High School teacher Valerie Gates hopped in her little blue Mazda last Wednesday — with the trunk almost too full of school laptops and chargers to close — and started driving around the neighborhoods of Salt Lake City.

It’s been five weeks since classes moved online because of the coronavirus, and still more than 400 students there haven’t logged on. Gates was determined to fix that.

Taped onto her dashboard was the list of students and what she hoped were their addresses (the district’s database are a little outdated). She drove to as many as she could, knocking on doors, yelling from the hallway of apartment complexes and leaving notes with the scraps of paper she could find in her car. At many, no one answered. At others, she was told the family didn’t live there any more.

“We can’t just let it go,” Gates said. “I’ve got to keep knocking and find them.”

Gates, who teaches English as a second language, said most of the kids who haven’t logged on yet at the high school are either refugees or immigrants or from low-income brackets. Some of the families haven’t received the notices about how to move forward with school after the buildings were closed — either because they’ve recently moved or don’t have a working phone. A few have gotten it, but haven’t been able to read what it says.

“Even if we sent the notice in their home language, some of these parents aren’t literate in their native tongue,” Gates added.

Getting students to engage while school is being held remotely has become a challenge across the country, as well as in Utah, during the pandemic. In Salt Lake City School District, though — with the highest percentage of minority students anywhere in the state — there are barriers that make it even more daunting.

Gates and other teachers are personally trying to close the gap by tracking those kids down.

It’s what the state’s superintendent, Sydnee Dickson, feared would happen before the governor called for K-12 schools to be dismissed starting March 16 and now extending through the end of the academic year. She had warned then that they weren’t prepared to move online and were “not capable of a full transition.” And she worried it would deepen the already existing inequities for families without the technology.

“There’s no doubt that some students have gone dark,” she reiterated last week during a Utah Board of Education meeting. “You just can’t find them. So many are not returning calls or emails.”

She referred to students not logging on as “sort of a slump” that she hopes can be addressed before the end of the year. Though there is no statewide data, it’s likely in the tens of thousands, if not more, who haven’t done any school work since the shut down.

There are 660,000 students in public schools. And the state estimates around 20% haven’t logged on. That could mean up to 132,000 not engaging online for a variety of reasons.

Some students, Dickson noted, have just decided not to try. But some may be working extra hours to help their families financially; others may be dealing with mental health concerns; and at least a few are likely struggling to get enough food outside of the classroom. Those extra burdens are more likely to impact students of color, she added.

At West High, nearly 65% of the 2,800 students there are minorities. Across Salt Lake City School District, it’s 55%, and there are 86 languages spoken.

So far, Gates has been to about 90 houses, she estimates, mostly on the west side of the city. Only 35 students have opened the door. She’s been able to get those kids set up with a computer, though, and it’s made a small dent. And she’s still looking for the rest.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) English teacher Valerie Gates, left, distributes a computer to help with remote learning, to West High School junior Monserrat Roque at West High School Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

In her own classes, Gates said, even two weeks ago, only two students were responding. Now, 70% are. Learning isn’t always going to be the top priority for families during the outbreak. But she believes as they adjust, more will come online.

She’s spoken to one high schooler who has been working at McDonald’s from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. He logged on for the first time last week. Other students she knows are from Guatemala and Honduras and have never used a computer before. She’s brought them laptops and helped troubleshoot while standing outside to safely social distance.

Gates has sort of had to become an impromptu IT specialist. And she jokes that her car is the school’s new laptop checkout cart.

There were 600 students at West High who hadn’t logged on earlier this month. And she and other teachers have helped get it down to the less than 400 left now.

“We just keep combing through one by one,” added Stacey Briggs, the principal at West. “Once they don’t come to school every day, they’re hard to find. But we’re trying.”

They’re assigning staff to call families every week and try to make contact. Teachers are delivering laptops where they’re needed. They’re reached out to homeless shelters, too, where they know some kids are staying. And they’re making it a policy that all students, no matter how late they log in, can turn in assignments and catch up.

The district doesn’t have numbers for how many students, overall, haven’t logged on yet, but it’s safe to say it is in the thousands. Staffers are trying to address the schools they believe will have the most concerns first and run the data there. That includes West High and Parkview Elementary.

Parkview has about 300 students; 83% are minorities and it’s a Title I institution, meaning many are low-income. After weeks of effort, there are now only seven kids remaining at the school who haven’t logged on yet, said Sandra Buendía, the district’s executive director of educational equity and student support.

“How do we reach out to students who have fallen off the radar?" she said. "We need to assess who they are and why they’re not online.”

Some Parkview teachers are using printed packets to overcome internet and connection issues, but even getting those picked up or delivered can be difficult.

“We’ve been adapting daily,” said fifth grade teacher Sandra Joley. “We’re not going to let them fall off.”

Lauren Avelar, who also teaches fifth grade at Parkview, added: “Are we worried? Yeah, we’re worried about every single one of them. We’re doing the best that we can to get to the kids.”

The staff at the school made 20 home visits earlier this month. And a few more got online last week. Principal Erin Anderson said the teachers are also answering phone calls and texts as late as 10 p.m. to connect.

When district records are outdated, she noted, teachers reach out to emergency contacts to try to get a hold of a family. Sometimes it’s like a massive phone tree until they reach the student.

Anderson believes communication is key to getting more logging online. The school and the district have been sending out emails, letters and texts in multiple languages. And those making the calls know Spanish.

As a baseline, she at least wants all parents to have gotten the word and know what’s going on. She knows some still haven’t — even this far in.

Gates jokes that she’s had to get over her embarrassment of knocking persistently and yelling through the door to get reach families when she’s going to their houses. Sometimes, because of fear of the virus, they won’t answer until she shouts, “This is Miss Gates from West High.”

“When they do, though, the parents are just so relieved to have contact from the school," she noted. “Sometimes it just takes many knocks."

And she’s willing to keep driving around and knocking as long as it takes to get all students logged on.