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Pandemic, Remote Learning Compound Low-Income Students' Struggles

Mellanie Murphy and her kids, Devin Lewis, Dallas-James Murphy and Kerry-Reece Murphy face difficult choices while learning remotely during the pandemic. They are on a limited income.
Submitted by Mellanie Murphy
Mellanie Murphy and her kids, Devin Lewis, Dallas-James Murphy and Kerry-Reece Murphy face difficult choices while learning remotely during the pandemic. They are on a limited income.

Last March, when school went online because of the pandemic, Jefferson County Public Schools mom of three Mellanie Murphy felt like she was going out of her mind.

Murphy is a single mom. She was working remotely from home while also trying to make sure a kindergartner, a first-grader and a high school sophomore were logged into their classes and getting work done in nontraditional instruction (NTI).

“I stressed out, crying, staying up at night, working late,” she said. House chores “fell by the wayside.”

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Pandemic, Remote Learning Compound Low-Income Students' Struggles

It was not sustainable. When school started back up in the fall, Murphy looked into sending her two youngest kids to a learning hub, spaces community organizations have opened to small groups of students to participate in NTI. But many of the hubs that partner with JCPS charge a fee that Murphy can’t afford on her limited income. The free ones near her are full.

Then there’s the transportation issue. Murphy doesn’t have a car. And with COVID-19 restrictions, taking the city bus is complicated. If the bus is close to capacity when it arrives, the whole family can’t get on.

She was out of other options, so Murphy decided that each weekday she had to start making a choice with her youngest, now a first-grader.

“It all kind of boils down to ‘Do I log him onto school? Or do I log onto work?’” Murphy said.

This is the agonizing choice facing many low-income parents. And it may be one reason why low-income students have seen a huge increase in failing grades during remote learning.

Failure Rates Correlated With Income

Data obtained by WFPL shows that low-income students were receiving failing grades at higher rates than their more privileged peers before the pandemic. But during the pandemic and remote learning, that disparity grew.

Almost 60% of low-income middle schoolers got a failing grade during the first six weeks of the school year, or first grading term. That’s a five-fold increase from before the pandemic in 2019. Meanwhile about 35% of their middle- and upper-income peers received a failing grade, up from 4.5% in 2019.

In high school, for economically-privileged students, the failure rate went down during remote learning. But for low-income high school students, it went up slightly, showing that gaps in educational opportunity may be widening between low-income students and their more-advantaged peers.

Failure rates were also worse for Black, Latinx and Indigenous students, groups that society disadvantages economically.

The first term grades are not final, and students had until January 15 to bring them up. But they are the data that JCPS made available to WFPL, and they may be a better measure of educational engagement than the broad “participation” measure used by JCPS.

The district had an overall daily participation rate of 90.4% for the first semester, but students can be counted as having participated daily for a broad range of actions, from messaging with a teacher to participating in a web session.

The Hubs

Parents at all income levels are grappling with managing remote learning along with their job responsibilities. But while well-off families can pay to hire a babysitter, tutor or send their children to a fee-based learning hub, that is not possible for parents already struggling to make ends meet.

When Murphy looked into sending her first and second graders to a learning hub, she found that many programs listed as partners with JCPS charged a fee. For the YMCA NTI day camp, the cost is $148 a week per child. She couldn’t afford it.

Around two-thirds of JCPS’ 92,000 students live in low-income households. The learning hubs, both fee-based and free, have served a total of 2,400 students this school year at 68 different hubs, according to Evolve 502,the nonprofit that partnered with JCPS to support and organize the community learning hubs.

“That’s a really small number in comparison to how many students are considered vulnerable students in our district,” said Kish Cumi Price, the Louisville Urban League’s director of Education Policy and Programming.

Price said the Urban League pushed JCPS and Louisville Metro Government last summer for a robust network of learning hubs. But the end result was not what Price envisioned.

“The district then responded with the desire, but not necessarily the urgency we had hoped for,” she said.

WFPL News requested a list of hubs and their locations, but Evolve 502 declined to provide it.

“The majority of the 68 sites are at full capacity and have asked us not to publish their site at this time. They cannot field the number of requests they receive and we do not want to provide parents information that is inaccurate or share organizations with them that are full and unable to serve them,” the organization wrote in a statement to be attributed to executive director Marland Cole.

With free hubs full, the result is that parents like Murphy have nowhere to turn.

“I am scared to even know how many students have been left at home and ‘parentified,’ because [parents] have to provide for their families, and [the kids] may not be of age to support siblings like that,” Price aid. “But that’s what many of them were forced to do.”

According to Price and other community leaders, technology literacy is another major barrier for low-income families. Between March and August, JCPS managed to get a Chromebook to nearly every student in the district in need of one, along with about 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. But Price said using the technology is a challenge for parents and students who haven’t had it before. This is another gap that staff at learning hubs can fill for families, if they can get into one.

'I Just Get Frustrated'

Murphy’s oldest son, 17-year-old Devin Lewis, used to love school. The  Ballard High School junior used to wake up each morning at 4:00 am, and take two city buses from his Shively neighborhood to make it to the East End school on time. But even this harrowing commute didn’t deter him.

“He loves the school,” Murphy said. “Attendance has never been an issue. He’s never used catching the bus, ‘it’s cold and raining,’ as an excuse not to go to school.”

In the classroom, Lewis made good grades and had good relationships with teachers. But when school went remote, everything changed.

“He went from a straight-A student to barely passing,” his mother said.

Lewis said remote learning is just not working for him. He’s making it to all his web sessions, but he has trouble focusing and absorbing the content. When he has questions, he types them into the message box, but he doesn’t always get the answers he needs.

“Sometimes they don’t respond. Sometimes they don’t answer the question I’m asking. But they think they are, so they move on,” he said.

In an in-person setting, Lewis said he would follow up until he understood. But online feels different.

“I just get frustrated and stop,” he said.

It’s been hard as a parent for Murphy to watch her son struggle, and see a once-confident young person “second-guessing his abilities.”

Jenni Garmon, a mental health practitioner for JCPS school Newcomer Academy, said she and her colleagues at other schools are seeing a district-wide impact on students’ self-confidence.

“There’s this huge drop-off in feelings of self-efficacy and motivation,” she said, as students grapple with online learning.

Some former JCPS parents have opted to send their children to private schools during the pandemic so they can learn in-person.

Murphy considered this. She looked into taking out a loan and cobbling together scholarships to get her son into a private school operating in-person. But the few schools that may have been within reach financially didn’t have any room in his grade.

Lewis thinks JCPS should open to in-person classes, at least for small groups of high schoolers.

“I think since we’re older, we could do good with it, wearing our masks and stuff,” he said.

JCPS Looks Ahead To In-Person School

JCPS Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said she doesn’t like what the data is showing, that the gaps are growing between low-income students and their wealthier peers. But she said up until recently the district didn’t see a safe path to bringing students back to the classroom, even in small groups.

Jefferson County has been in the red zone for months, signaling uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Coleman said the district has made an online tutoring service available free to all students through FEV Tutor. So far 1,222 JCPS students used that service. She also said teachers are being directed to give students more opportunities than usual to bring up their grades.

But mostly Coleman is looking forward to a return to in-person learning, “and getting our arms around our kids again.”

JCPS is hoping to bring students back once staff have received both doses of the vaccine, possibly in March. Coleman said the district is working on guidance to help teachers catch students up once they’re back in the classroom.

“How do we continue to move forward while filling in that unfinished learning as we go?” she said.

But Murphy wants a more immediate response. She thinks JCPS needs to create more opportunities for in-person learning now. More free hubs, for example. Or chances for struggling or high-need students to attend school in small groups.

“Listen to some of the advice that some of the parents are giving you, from all walks of life: from low-income to high-income. And make some adjustments,” she said.

Price thinks the district should prioritize getting more resources to expand learning hub access and making virtual learning work for low-income families.

“Why are we trying so desperately to focus on something that may not end up being what people would hope for it to be anyway?” she said of the plans to return to the classroom.

For now, Murphy and her son will keep doing the best they can. Even though her youngest two sons are missing web sessions and assignments so she can work, she still makes time to read with them. Meanwhile, Lewis has signed up to use the FEV Tutor service. His mother is hopeful, but not optimistic.

After all, Murphy said, it’s still online. And so far, the district’s virtual offerings just haven’t been working for her son.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.