A School Copes

What does a school do when its students lack most of the things necessary for remote learning in the midst of a global pandemic? To make the challenge even greater, add in the fact that just as its faculty was getting rolling on a contingency plan that they whipped up over a weekend, an earthquake hit.

That’s the situation at the Utah International Charter School, whose students are mostly refugees and other recent immigrants. Ninety percent of the students here were born outside America. Students speak 30 different “home” languages; a home language is the primary language spoken in students’ homes. Many families have no internet service or an inexpensive internet service that can handle email but not much else. These are people with so little that one family of six has just one small table. That makes it tough for a kid to find a good workspace at home.

About half of the students are capable of using Google Classroom. That means that they have internet service and that they have been in the U.S. long enough to have the technical skills and English language proficiency that they need to study remotely. The other half do not. Most students have been in the U.S. for two or three years. But some have been here far less. The most recent arrivals–two students from Guatemala whose families are seeking asylum here–had spent just two days at school before the schools closed.

Gov. Gary Herbert declared a “soft closure” for all Utah schools on Friday, March 13. That originally meant that students could come to school for meals and for tutoring. But tutoring has since been eliminated.

The principal of the schoool, Angie Rowland (my sister-in-law) and her hardworking faculty have set up a system that will help their students continue to study, albeit at a slower pace. Rowland and her teachers are doing the same balancing act every institution in this nation, from the Federal government on down, is doing: adhering to CDC guidelines while maintaining some services.

Teachers spent that weekend of March 14th and 15th creating study packets for students. They contained reading and writing assignments, math problems and similar school work. Most students came to school to pick up those packets; but faculty delivered the study packets to about a dozen students.

After Salt Lake’s March 18 earthquake, which measured 5.7 on the Richter scale, Rowland had to have the school inspected and the building did pass that inspection.

Originally the school had planned to offer time slots for students come to school to drop off or pick up materials and, if necessary, receive some tutoring. That would have kept the number of students in the school at a small number, but the school has now moved to a completely online model, with teachers working from home. The school continues to give students breakfast and lunch (takeout only), which is common in schools across the nation serving marginalized communities.

It’s not ideal, says Rowland. The school uses a collaborative model; that means a student who is more proficient in English than others but is fluent in Swahili can easily help another Swahili-speaking student who is struggling.

The good news is that more students have internet than expected. So the school is checkin out computers to students who would otherwise have nothing but a cell phone. A counselor is helping families that do not have internet to help them complete applications for internet service.

Teachers are working with students to try to help them with their online work and preparing packets for students who as yet have no computer or internet service.

The state originally shut down schools for two weeks. But last week, the state extended the shutdown to May 1. It’s still tough for students who don’t have anyone at home who can point at a screen and tell them what to click on, Rowland said. But, the good thing is that she, the teachers and the students know that this is how it’s going to operate for at least the next five weeks and can focus on getting everyone up to speed with online learning.

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