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Cleveland Schools Finds Family Income, Student Age Impacted Remote Learning

A girl writing in a notebook in front of a tablet.
Julia M. Cameron

Cleveland Metropolitan School District found that some families struggled to adapt to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, revealing big differences in success based on a student’s grade level, access to technology and family income.

A 2019-2020 end-of-school-year survey asked families if they could access the remote learning resources provided by CMSD or had to rely on paper copies of assignments sent to their homes. About 45% of students said they could access the online resources “almost all of the time,” said district CEO Eric Gordon.

“For those kids who did have [internet access], they told us they put more effort into their work, they were more confident that they could do their work and complete it,” Gordon said. “They were more focused, and they spent more of their day actually engaged in learning.”

The numbers were consistent with the survey conducted by CMSD ahead of the shift to remote learning, Gordon said. The previous survey found about half of the district had access to reliable internet, while roughly two-thirds of CMSD families did not have access to a laptop, tablet or similar device, and one-third of families didn’t have access to reliable, high-speed internet.

Based on those numbers, the district determined it could need as many as 25,000 devices for remote learning. CMSD ended up distributing around 16,000, Gordon said, as well as about 9,000 internet hotspots.

Students who received the devices are able to continue using them over the summer, Gordon said, and the district is planning to distribute more in the future.

“We did not collect them back over the summer and will continue to try to broaden that, particularly the devices, so we don’t have students and families sharing a single device,” Gordon said. “You can share the internet, but sharing the devices is more difficult.”

Families will have access to the internet hotspots through May 2021, Gordon said. CMSD is working with the nonprofit DigitalC – which aims to improve digital literacy and access in Cleveland – as well as the city, to make that internet access permanent.

“And then from the school’s point of view, using this as an opportunity to move to a one-to-one device strategy so that once you have that internet, you have a device to connect to it,” he said.

The survey found other factors also had an impact on the effectiveness of remote learning, Gordon said, including the ages of individual students. Middle and high school students adapted better to the shift, he said, while younger students needed more assistance.

“That’s not a particular surprise,” Gordon said. “Younger children aren’t going to be able to log into a Zoom classroom on their own, in the same way that a middle or upper-high school student would be able to.”

Teachers at higher grade levels also felt the remote learning strategy was effective, he said, while those teaching younger grade levels felt it was difficult to make the transition.

“They really felt like they needed more face-to-face,” Gordon said. “They didn’t feel as confident that these technologies could replace face-to-face instruction.”

Parents with higher incomes were also more concerned about the quality of remote learning than low-income families, Gordon said. That’s not because low-income parents care less, he said, but likely because those families have other areas of concern.

“I think that because they are immediately trying to meet basic needs – food, housing security, working those essential jobs – they place a heavier trust that the school is doing its part,” Gordon said.

The difference in trust is something the district plans to look into moving forward as they develop plans for potential remote learning in the fall, Gordon said.

The survey of teachers found that fewer than 1,000 students failed to participate in the remote learning.

The district has yet to release its plans for the fall semester. CMSD is waiting for guidance from the state before it begins communicating those plans, Gordon said. He expects the district to begin unveiling its strategy in mid-July.