D65 and D202 communities confront the barriers to online learning


Illustration by Carly Schulman

D65 students were scheduled to resume in-person instruction on Sept. 29 but will now do so on Nov. 16 at the earliest.

Andrew Myers, Reporter

As a parent to a Chute Middle School eighth grader with disabilities, Angela Cummings is grateful for the administrators and teachers working around the clock to make online working efficient, but said online learning does not make up for in-person instruction.

“(His aide at school) provided all-day reminders for him to remain on-task,” Cummings said. “For me to try to do that and work at the same time has definitely been stressful, as I am behind in my work, and he is almost a week behind in school work.”

When Gov. J. B. Pritzker issued a shelter-in-place order on March 20, in addition to the already implemented CDC social distancing guidelines, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School District 202 schools were forced to implement an online learning curriculum for the year.

As of now, all Illinois public schools will remain online until April 30, when the current Illinois stay-at-home order is set to expire. In the meantime, these schools have been navigating classes without in-person instruction — especially as some students lack access to laptops (or tablets) and high-speed internet.

Echoing a struggle parents are facing across the country, Cummings said she has relearned Algebra 1 just to help her child through his assignments. However, Cummings said that teachers have been very available, and any time she has emailed a teacher in District 65, she has received “almost an immediate response.”

One of Cummings’ other concerns has been how schools in District 65 are planning to assess students — whether the district will use letter grades, pass/fail or effort grades.

“I assume it’s going to be more of just an effort grading system which I think is the only equitable way of doing it,” Cummings said. “But I think everybody is confused about what the bar is and how we are going to grade students.”

Once e-learning started, District 65 school board president Suni Kartha said principals and teachers realized some students had not engaged with teachers as frequently. In an effort to get more supplies to students, Kartha said the district recently ordered an additional 200 Chromebooks with philanthropic contributions from the Evanston Community Foundation, Foundation 65 and the PTA Equity Project.

Kartha said while District 65 still must overcome challenges related to online learning — such as distributing necessary supplies to students — the district’s leaders have worked hard to make the program successful.

“I give a lot of credit to our administrators and teachers, who went into long, sleepless nights to do what they can to make sure things were in place and getting technology into the hands of students that need it,” Kartha said.

In tandem with District 65, Evanston Township High School went online March 17.

David Chan, director of instructional technology for ETHS, has led the charge to launch the high school’s online learning system after the school transitioned away from in-person classes March 17.

Chan, who has held the position for seven years, oversaw ETHS efforts in years prior to COVID-19 to build an online learning apparatus and conducted a trial during a snow day last year. That experience, according to Chan, helped ETHS evaluate its technological capacity for online learning.

“We had 50 mobile hotspots prior to COVID-19 and we immediately ordered an additional 25 to prepare for a little bit of a ramp up,” Chan said. “What that means right now is that any student whose family has requested or expressed a need for internet access at home has been given or at least contacted for providing a hotspot so they can continue their e-learning.”

Even with this preparation, Chan said his IT team has “had to scramble a bit” and has “been working really hard” to extend the school’s online learning capacity.

David Allen, an ETHS AP Psychology and Senior Studies teacher, said the school’s one-to-one system, where incoming students have each received Chromebooks for the last six years, has prepared the school for online learning.

“Students over the last six years have become more adept at using the computer in the classroom,” Allen said. “I am currently doing a lot of Zoom for synchronous learning and then doing a lot of recording of lectures and discussions using Screencastify for prepared lessons.”

However, Allen said each department gets a certain amount of time in which it may provide synchronous learning, which limits his live instruction. Allen said he has not been reaching as many students as he normally can during in-person instruction. This challenge, he said, was one of the factors that led to ETHS using a pass/complete grading system for the school year.

Gordon Wright, a parent of third and fifth grade students at Dewey Elementary School, said he was impressed with Dewey’s transition to online learning.

Dewey has been using Seesaw and the Google Suite apps, such as Google Hangout, to upload work and meet individually with students. The school has not provided live classes, but rather has assigned work through Google Classroom and uploaded video lessons for students to watch on their own time. In addition, teachers offer online office hours.

“We have felt that the district and the principals and teachers were clearly working overtime to make sure that there was no interruption to our kids’ learning,” Wright said. “Even though it has been challenging at various times, the fact that they are working so hard is encouraging.”

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