25 Investigates: Hundreds of Mass. remote learners have never logged on; districts working to find them

BOSTON — From technical issues to extended screen time, to the lack of social connection; parents, students, and teachers have shared the challenges of remote learning. But, 25 Investigates discovered remote learning has halted education for kids across the state.

25 Investigates gathered data that show hundreds of students have never logged on once this school year.

Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh and investigative producer Jason Solowski contacted more than 60 school districts that are using all remote learning and asked them how many students have never once participated in a single virtual classroom and how many are rarely there.

They found the answer isn’t that simple. And, the solutions are a lot more complicated than simply getting a device into every students’ hand.

Remote learning struggles continue

“I’m a mom of five children spanning from the ages of 12 to two,” said Sheryl-Ann Carolan.

The Lynn mom knows all about the remote learning struggle. She had to take a leave from her nursing job to help teach her kids. Two have special needs and only recently returned to in-person learning at a therapeutic school in Chelsea. Her middle school daughter is virtual learning in a group setting at the Salvation Army in Lynn.

“[It’s] definitely a learning curve,” she said.

“What is it like as a parent, watching your kids try to navigate the various ways of learning in this pandemic,” Kavanaugh asked.

“Not having that connection with other people, staring at a computer screen for seven hours a day, attempting to get them to sit in one spot the seven hours a day,” Carolan said.

It’s a difficult daily journey. But, 25 investigates has learned that journey has yet to begin for hundreds of Massachusetts kids.

Reaching out to missing remote learners

Our team reached out to all school districts in Massachusetts that are still in a remote-only learning model to see how many kids are falling through the cracks of a virtual classroom and what districts are doing about it.

The Everett School District reports 13 students have not logged on since the start of the school year.

They’ve also identified 127 students as high risk for low participation.

“We started by really just looking at attendance data, because that’s kind of a global marker for student engagement. And we were disappointed with the numbers that we saw,” said Pryia Tahiliani, Superintendent of Everett Public Schools and their roughly 7,500 students.

She says remote learning has presented an entirely new set of engagement problems they are working every day to solve. “It is just completely unparalleled to anything I think we’ve ever had to do in education before,” Tahiliani said.

As a city, Everett has been in the red, high-COVID risk category, since the color-coded system was rolled out. So, students have been remote learning since spring. A planned move to hybrid learning was postponed.

Tahiliani says getting students Chromebooks and internet access was tough but doable. Reconnecting with students who’ve gone off the grid and keeping them engaged is a bigger challenge.

“Everybody’s social, emotional wellbeing is suffering right now. And, we really do need to, even as a school system our primary responsibility is to educate our students, but it’s very difficult to educate students, who are struggling emotionally, and socially.”

The Everett school district brought on bi- and tri-lingual parent liaisons to help connect with families. They invested in software that can translate phone calls into multiple languages. Some kids are now e-learning, in small groups, at various schools.

Tackling this issue varies from district to district as do the numbers.

Chelsea Public Schools told us 184 students haven’t logged on yet, compared to 24 in Webster and 2 in North Adams.

Lawrence Public Schools says about 300 of their students haven’t logged in yet. But they have connected with all those families and found some left the district or made alternative education plans.

The state’s largest district, Boston Public Schools says 310 of more than 51,000 students are not participating in remote learning. That number improved from 837 in October. The city says it’s working on getting students the technical tools they need and on family outreach.

Educators across the state say building those relationships with families is key.

Family Outreach

“Making sure that there’s not a food and security issue, making sure that there’s not an internet issue, you know, providing whatever resources that we can...”

Dr. Dianne Kelly is superintendent of public schools in Revere, where, as of December 1st, 4 students still haven’t logged on once.

“Some families took us over a month to get in touch with but we had social workers going to houses and school resource officers.”

Kelly says that work has paid off. As of this month, Revere has 151 students with very limited engagement. That’s compared to about 500 in that category in October.

Back in Everett, Tahiliani said she’s working to add more social workers to help students, and their families, not just with technology but on an emotional level. She hopes to add more social workers to make those connections with those who struggle.

“I just feel so much gratitude for the community for the families that are really sacrificing a lot right now and, and helping to be the teachers of their students, and then to our unbelievable staff, who is, you know, working around the clock.”

“What do you say to parents and students that are saying, hey, it’s time we got to get kids back in school,” Kavanaugh asked.

“We are still committed to slowly and strategically and steadily bringing back students into our buildings for more in-person instruction in a way that we think is safe, and intentional, versus, you know, kind of reckless at this point,” Tahiliani said.

For Sheryl-Ann Carolan in Lynn, a full return to in-person learning can’t come soon enough.

“I think the hardest moments I have had is when it comes to actually having to step up and take the place of that teacher and teach them,” she said. “It’s just a learning process for all of us.”

Lynn Public Schools, and many others, did not respond to our questions about remote learners in their respective communities.

Some districts told us, they have connected with all students including Brockton, Millis, Berkshire Regional High School, Provincetown, Dedham, South Hadley and Rockport.

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