Illinois COVID-19 remote learning yields some nearly empty online classrooms

CHICAGO (WLS) -- When the I-Team discovered that both Illinois and Chicago education officials were unable to provide any data showing whether students are actually logging in to online remote learning during the pandemic, they launched an investigation and found some nearly empty virtual classrooms.

"We're doing whatever we can to make sure that students are constantly learning but it is definitely heartbreaking and overwhelming to see the lack of participation, like do my students love me?" said CPS teacher Andrea Parker.

Parker and other teachers at Fulton Elementary took their teaching outreach to the streets last week, leading school parade through Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Parker says only 51 out of 84 of her students, about 60%, check into remote learning at least once a week, either by completing an assignment or going to class. In some of her classes, she says she only regularly sees four students.

In 2019, district records show Fulton Elementary school's attendance was 94.3%, greater than the CPS average of 92.8%.

"All this lack of learning... It's just too many different variables that can hinder a student's learning progress," Parker said.

"We know that teachers have been asked to reinvent an entire profession, without warning in about 72 hours, and it's an incredible challenge," said Bill Curtin, Teach Plus Illinois.

The teacher education group Teach Plus Illinois' "All Means All Initiative" is connecting teachers statewide to share remote learning best practices during the pandemic. Teachers tell them engagement is down, and that the levels vary widely across the state.

"They're starting to call it the COVID slide. We know there's going to be a huge achievement gap after this crisis passes and when students return to the classroom and that's going to disproportionately impact our neediest and most vulnerable students," Curtin told the I-Team.

"I don't think there's any teacher out there who is teaching the same way that he or she taught pre COVID," said CPS teacher Carla Jones.

She told the I-Team that connecting remotely with her students at Cook Elementary in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood started with only 10% engagement but has risen to about 70% of students checking in at least weekly. She says she also has increased her focus on social-emotional learning for her students as they struggle to deal with the complex realities involving life during a pandemic.

"Attendance is definitely different than it was pre COVID-19. It is not, I have physically seen you. But it is more so, have I seen you from this remote learning space? Have you picked up a packet from school? Have you responded to an email?" Jones told the I-Team.

Cook Elementary School had a 93.3% attendance rate in 2019, outpacing the CPS District average.

CPS officials refused to do an on-camera interview for this report, instead saying they don't have sharable attendance data yet because tracking the "unique ways students are being engaged through remote learning is extremely complex." They said in a statement that they plan to provide "comprehensive data on remote learning as soon as possible" when they are "confident in the fidelity and accuracy of the data."

"I think they've got very robust systems and multiple levels of accountability, making sure that there is student teacher engagement every day in the way that there is supposed to be," Mayor Lori Lightfoot told ABC7's Craig Wall. Mayor Lightfoot said she's challenging major communication providers to increase internet accessibility citywide to boost student access to online learning.

"The challenge is connectivity and making sure that we have WiFi and internet access all over the city," she said.

"Someone needs to reach out and figure out what's happening, can they engage? Are there barriers?" Elaine Allensworth, Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, told the I-Team.

Illinois State Board of Education tells the I-Team they're not collecting real-time attendance data so they "would not have a state perspective at this time on which methods are working best or where." Attendance data for this school year, including the pandemic period, is due to ISBE by mid-August.

It can be done. In South Suburban Thornton, the Wolcott School district had the region's best attendance rate before the pandemic. When the crisis hit, teachers and administrators here say they made it a goal to connect with every student. They set up a meal distribution line where they also pass out school work and even drive food and class materials to some students' homes.

"Our teachers really got together in groups and put together some spreadsheets and they were tracking hey I haven't heard from the student Have you heard from them?" said Megan Drangsholt, Director of Student Services, Wolcott School District 154.

"I think it is difficult I think it really takes a focus on saying right from the beginning we don't want to lose kids," said Tom Hurlburt, Superintendent and Principal, Wolcott School District 154. "It's trying to know your students and then how do we reach out to each of them," he told the I-Team.

The I-Team sent Freedom of Information requests about student pandemic attendance to 150 school districts across the area but so far only two have responded. Alsip, Hazelgreen and Oak Lawn SD 126 schools officials say on average, district wide attendance during remote learning averages a 89.5% attendance rate, ranging from 87.5% at Hazelgreen Elementary to 91.6% at Lane Elementary. District 126 officials tell the I-Team they measure attendance by students checking in on a Google form and/or engaging in assignments. Schools in the Arlington Heights School District average an attendance of 98.8%, ranging from 99.9% at Patton Elementary School to 95.9% at Greenbrier Elementary School, following ISBE guidance that counts attendance in a variety of manners including "video conference 'check-ins'" to "packet collections by school personnel". When the state's other schools respond to the I-Team's FOIA request we'll track updates of their engagement here on ABC7Chicago.com.
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