Thousands of Utah students are struggling with online learning during the coronavirus pandemic

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). McKenzie Jackson helps one of her 5th grade students, at Lincoln Elementary School in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.

Editor’s note Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

West Valley City • Kyle and his mother are huddled over a Chromebook inside Hillsdale Elementary with his concerned fifth grade teacher.

He’s learning online this fall as a safeguard against COVID-19 for his grandparents, who have significant health issues and share his family’s home. His mother works 12-hour days and had assumed he was attending classes.

But for close to a month, Kyle hadn’t been logging on. Teacher Monica Cheshire now sets aside part of her Fridays to tutor him and other distance learners. “They need something else besides the computer," she said, “because the computer just doesn’t teach them.”

Despite such efforts by Utah teachers, thousands of online students have failed at least one class.

In the Granite District, nearly 14,000 in-person and online students received one or more F grades or incompletes in the first quarter — more than twice the number from the first quarter in 2019.

Another 1,200 students received all Fs or incompletes — a whopping five times greater than last year.

Those struggling students are most likely to be poor and to attend school online, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis. Of the students who failed all of first quarter, 73% attended classes online.

While the number of students who completely failed first quarter represents 2% of the district’s students, spokesman Ben Horsley said, “Obviously, distance learning and COVID is causing problems.”

The Tribune sought data from the five school districts in Salt Lake County about the progress of distance-learning students. Salt Lake City, where all students are learning online except for a small number who get face-to-face instruction, and Murray did not yet have data available. Salt Lake City’s first quarter ends Nov. 9.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In Jordan District, students who are having difficulty with online learning are referred to a district-level employee if efforts made by the school have failed, a spokeswoman said. Of the nearly 8,800 students doing distance learning, 2%, or 176 kids, have been referred to her.

Of the 5,800 students in Canyons District attending online, 5%, or 290 students, haven’t logged into the learning management system Canvas in the past month, according to spokeswoman Kirsten Stewart.

Only Granite had school-level data available, which its school board is scheduled to discuss Tuesday. Nearly 800 junior and high school students in the district failed all of first quarter, 2.5 times greater than last year.

Failing a quarter was virtually unheard of in the district’s elementary schools last fall. But this year, 2,168 children received at least one F or incomplete, and another 416 received all Fs or incompletes.

Among the 10 elementary schools where students are struggling the most, eight are Title I schools, where the concentration of poverty is the highest and students were already behind their peers academically before the pandemic.

Put another way, of all the students in the district who are failing one class, 80% qualify for free or reduced price lunch. And nearly all, or 98%, of the students who completely failed first quarter qualified for free or reduced price lunch.

To reach these students, “it has to be relentless problem-solving where we don’t say, ‘We’ve done what we can do,’” said Noelle Converse, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.

“We have to identify the barriers and obstacles so [families] can understand from their perspective how this can work in a way that does not undo them.”

‘Just devastating’

Hillsdale Elementary in West Valley City — where nearly all of the students in the Title I school are economically disadvantaged, and almost 70% are English language learners, according to state data — is one of the hardest hit schools.

District data shows a quarter of its students failed one or more classes in first quarter. “It’s just devastating,” said Principal Monica Thayer.

Teachers, a parent liaison, a social worker and the principal are reaching out to each failing student’s families.

“We’ll say, ‘We’re so concerned, how can we help? Do you know how to use the technology? Do you need internet? Do you need to work with your teacher? Do you need us to teach your child what to do everyday? Do you need a schedule?’” Thayer said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

School officials prefer such students return to the classroom, where teachers can better monitor their progress and meet their nutritional and other needs, Thayer said. But they say they do not pressure parents. “It’s their right," she said, “to choose what kind of learning their kids are going to participate in.”

Still, when Thayer calls, she said, she lays out her concerns. “I’m frank. I say, ‘I’m so concerned they’re not learning from home and that’s going to affect their opportunities in the future.’"

About half of Hillsdale’s students were learning online first quarter, Thayer said. The phone calls and home visits have prompted 100 families to send their children back to the classroom.

“We are so thrilled,” she said. “When we have kids in schools, we can control the variables. We can control their engagement and give them the differentiated instruction and attention they need. We can build relationships with them and provide immediate feedback.”

Some parents have come to school to learn how to navigate the digital classroom. On Friday, Cheshire was showing Kyle’s mother how to log on and check his assignments. (He asked to only be identified by his first name to protect his educational privacy.)

( Julie Hirschi | Special to The Tribune ) Hillsdale Elementary School teacher Monica Cheshire, right, meets with Kyle, a 5th grader who is learning online, and his mother. Kyle asked to only be identified by his first name to protect his educational privacy.

“Everything that he’s going to be using pretty much is in Google classroom,” explained Cheshire, pointing to the screen. “So any announcements that he needs, anything coming up due, is going to be over here and it’s going to show him what he needs to do.”

Of her 27 students, seven are distance learners. “There isn’t a good solution. There really isn’t,” she said. "Keeping them home, they miss out on the social that they need. But when they bring them, then they don’t have the safety sometimes.”

Some parents have not responded to the school’s prompts.

“I’m presuming that things are really, really hard and they don’t know what to do,” Thayer said. “The basic need of staying safe and just living through this pandemic is greater than the risk of falling behind at school.”

The greatest need

Among the 11 Granite District schools with more than 40% of the students doing distance learning, five are Title I schools.

Some district and school officials expected the opposite: That most of the students at schools highly impacted by poverty and other risk factors would be in the classroom. Instead, a sizable portion of parents kept their children home, to keep them and family members safe from the virus. Parents are more likely to work in high-risk jobs and families may live in multigenerational households.

“Many of our families don’t have health insurance so the risk of getting sick or being able to afford the care, or the risk of losing a family member, is really high,” said Hillsdale Elementary’s Thayer. “It’s not that they don’t value education. They very much do. It’s just they’re so afraid of their child being sick and not being able to meet their needs.”

The funding given to Title I schools is meant to close the achievement gap that has for decades left students of color, English language learners and students living in poverty achieving less than their peers.

The number of failing grades show the gap has widened, said Aaron Wilson, director of Title I schools for Granite. He said teachers give failing grades or incompletes only after exhausting efforts to reach out and help students.

“We’re not giving up or resigning that those students will never participate," Wilson said. "We’re redoubling our efforts through home visits.”

Students living in poverty often don’t have the same supports at home as students whose families are more well-off: The elementary schools where students are considered at high risk have high concentrations of English language learners and large populations of refugee or new immigrant families, according to the district.

While Granite has delivered Chromebooks to every student who requested one, along with Wi-Fi hot spots if needed, that doesn’t mean their parents have the language or background to use the platforms. Their parents may be busy working during the day and unable to help, and they may not have a quiet place to work.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“I believe, first of all, all parents want their children to succeed,” said Charlene Liu, Granite’s director of educational equity. “But when you have other issues outside of education like food insecurity, economic instability, health issues, whatever other competing issues, it’s like, what is the greatest need right now?”

Schools can report educational neglect of children up to age 13 to the Utah Division of Child and Family Services after a student has five truancies and parents have failed to meet with the school to address the problem. DCFS was investigating 48 such cases last month, which appears to be a typical amount compared to before the pandemic.

Academics in the pandemic

Granite’s Liu worries about all the students who are failing but notes that the window for juniors and seniors to catch up is much shorter.

“The [estimated] 1,200 students that failed all courses, it’s like, where are these students?” Liu said. “My concern would be, have they dropped out? If they’ve dropped out, is it because they’re working, are they helping provide for their family?”

United Way of Salt Lake tracks learning outcomes in 18 Salt Lake County schools highly impacted by poverty and supports programs to boost the students’ academic achievement. But this year, its more realistic goal is instead to hold the line on learning, said Amy Ahrens Terpstra, vice president of collective impact.

“We’re fighting against the backslide,” she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Students across the county have taken or will be taking benchmark tests to determine their academic standing after the abrupt end of in-person learning last March, plus the summer break. One national statistical model by McKinsey & Co. projects that low-income high school students would lose more than a year of learning in a scenario in which schools are closed or intermittently open part time through the end of the school year.

District and school officials vow to implement targeted interventions to help students get back on track. Among the students returning to in-person learning at Hillsdale, Thayer notices a “huge issue” with stamina for children used to a more relaxed pace at home.

Teachers can’t reteach lessons, she said: “If we do that, we will always be behind." Instead, teachers give the day’s lesson and pull out kids who are missing skills in small groups to give intensive lessons.

That’s a task made harder during the pandemic, both because volunteering is limited or nonexistent and the time spent in small groups must be shortened to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Canyons District, newly deployed outreach workers have connected with 160 families through home visits, in-school appointments and coaching sessions at district family learning centers. Parents can learn computer literacy basics, like using Chromebooks and accessing Canvas so they can help their students. Interpreter services are also available.

The district’s Midvale Middle School — where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a third are English learners and whose boundaries include a homeless shelter — has created new ways to work with its 300 online students. Principal Mindy Robison said mentor teachers help contact families, provide technology support and check in with students.

Counselors offer social-emotional lessons on Fridays and enable students to interact with one another.

Most students chose to stay online for the second quarter, which tells Robison it is working, though she estimates 3% to 5% of students are significantly struggling.

“We keep taking feedback and trying to make online the best we can,” Robison said. “I’m proud of my teachers and the effort they put in, and I’m proud of the students. It’s a really tough situation."

‘I miss you so much’

At Lincoln Elementary in South Salt Lake, students come from all over the world and speak 27 languages — such as Arabic, Nepali and Somali — with a high population of refugees and immigrants in the surrounding community.

Currently, 350 students are attending in person and just under 200 are learning online, with more switching to in person since the second quarter started.

Only 34 kids have one or more failing grades or incompletes; six have all failing or incomplete grades. The district has pointed to the school, and particularly one of its 5th grade teachers, McKenzie Jackson, as a model of how to engage distance learners.

Principal Milton Collins and his faculty credit a grant that gave every student in the school a Chromebook, district Wi-Fi hot spots for families that need them, sending a school social worker to knock on doors, committed teachers — and love.

“I tell people all the time, we focus too much on test scores and data and we forget about the small things of loving kids,” Collins said, “because I’m telling you, before you can get it here in that head, get in that heart. When you get it in that heart, kids will do anything.”

Jackson created her own videos and materials, and talked to the school’s technology specialist on how best to incorporate at-home learning. She meets with her distance-learning students daily at 9 a.m., saying "that gives them that consistency and accountability of like, ‘Well, if I don’t show up today, Miss Jackson is going to know.’”

If a student misses a class, Jackson reaches out to parents and to the child.

“The first thing I say to them isn’t, ‘Why aren’t you doing your work?’” she said. “... It’s, ‘Hey, look, I miss you so much. … How’s it been going? How’s stuff at home?’”

It takes patience, she said, “to just realize we’re living in a global pandemic. If this child does not finish their graphic organizer about the theme today, I’m going to call them on Friday and say, ‘Hey, would you like to sit down on a Google Meet and do it together?’”

She has never felt more strongly, she said, “about building a good relationship with not only my students, but their families as well.”