No place to study, hunger, inadequate computers hurting Eastside and South L.A. students

Los Angeles families with school-age children in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and Watts struggled with access to computers and adequate internet throughout the spring semester while facing job losses and food insecurity, issues that hampered online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, a survey has found.

The findings call into question ongoing announcements from L.A. Unified School District officials that virtually all students were quickly connected in the spring after campuses shut down in March. The survey also suggests that the digital divide is continuing to harm the education of low-income Latino and Black students.

One key finding showed that more than a third of students didn’t have an appropriate and quiet place at home to study or participate in online learning — a problem that school officials have limited ability to address, unless they bring small groups of high-needs students back to campus, as county guidelines now allow.

LAUSD officials and other L.A. County school districts have hesitated to take this step over concerns of spreading the coronavirus, although a few school systems are moving quickly to make these opportunities available.

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Recognizing this problem with the learning spaces at home, L.A. Unified and donors have worked to provide headphones to students to minimize distractions.

The survey was a collaboration by researchers from USC and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages 19 L.A. Unified schools enrolling 14,200 children in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and Watts. The survey focused on areas served by the Partnership, which are among the lowest-income areas in the city. These neighborhoods also have been hit hard by the pandemic.

In these schools, 89% of students are Latino, 9% are Black, and 96% are members of low-income families. Nearly 1,200 families completed the survey.

Researchers conducted the survey in July, so the findings encompassed the entire spring semester but not the beginning of the current semester.

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In remarks Monday, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said 98.5% of all students in the district were now connected. A district spokesperson said last week that this meant a student had logged on to the district’s online learning platform at least once since school started on Aug. 18.

Beutner also said attendance numbers were relatively strong — considering the ongoing pandemic — an average daily rate of 93.4% this school year compared with 97% last year, according to the district. Attendance accounting this year, however, allows students to be counted as present with minimal daily interaction.

If a teacher receives one email from a student or parent before midnight, for example, that student can then be counted as present for the school day. A turned-in assignment meant to be completed over three days can count as three days of attendance even if a student does not otherwise make contact with a teacher.

This loose attendance accounting is not unique to L.A. Unified; state officials established these rules. The LAUSD, however, has not released additional data that give a clear picture of student engagement.

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The new survey also found that students were more engaged when they had a computer and reliable internet access.

The survey underscores how poverty has exacerbated the toll wrought by the pandemic and how challenging these problems are to overcome.

The survey found:

  • 77% of families lost income
  • 72% experienced “food insecurity”
  • 27% faced health challenges
  • 28% had experienced “housing insecurity”

Even so, 30% of these families purchased technology to help their children in school. Nonetheless, during July, after the conclusion of the spring semester, 17% of families reported having no internet at home.
And 75% of parents and guardians surveyed did not themselves use computers on a regular basis — a stark depiction of the digital divide. Some 42% of students are relying on siblings when running into problems with technology.

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