FRESNO, California (KSEE) – The coronavirus pandemic caused every public school in California to close its doors for months – highlighting the digital divide that exists between affluent and underserved areas.
In March 2020, school districts were asked to close their doors and switch to online learning to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Many teachers packed up their classrooms expecting to teach from home for just a few weeks – but instead were stuck teaching virtually from home until local and state health officials cleared them to return to the classroom.
One common trend across the Central Valley and California was the decline in student’s mental health, one of the most troubling aspects of the digital divide.
Sean Soares, who describes himself as a child activist, has students who go to Fresno County schools. Soares said he saw firsthand the implications this pandemic had.
“One of the cornerstones of being a good teacher is being able to address the diverse needs of students learning on top of that we really need to start working on the mental health and emotional intelligence of children,” said Soares.
Mental health might have also played a factor in students’ grades falling. Clovis Unified has seen a 5% increase in students having D’s and F’s. Neighboring Fresno Unified has also seen more failing grades, reporting a 10% increase with students receiving an F or D grade.
“We did have an increase in our D & F rates in one, two, and three quarter – probably about 10-14% in ELA and another 10% in mathematics roughly,” said Fresno Unified’s Carlos Castillo.
Both school districts also saw a decrease in participation due to lack of internet availability, not having a device, or a safe place to log on. Clovis Unified said their attendance was around 90% at the beginning of the pandemic; Fresno Unified’s attendance was around 80%.
Ambra O’Connor with Fresno Unified said students within the district missed online learning for a number of reasons.
“The beginning of the year when we were purely virtual our attendance was in the 80s – at a good 80% – and a good number of those absences were attributed to technology issues or not being able to connect,” said O’Connor.
The Fresno County Department of Public Health eventually cleared schools to bring small groups of “at-risk” students to campus. At-risk students include homeless students, students with special needs, and students not taking part in distance learning.
Fresno Unified said their attendance and participation jumped from 80% to 93%, but a majority of their students were still learning at home.
“We have to give our kids what they need but sometimes people don’t have that ability, so they just sit back and say we are just trying to survive we are in survival mode instead of thrive mode,” said Soares.
Candace Dodd, who has three children in Clovis Unified, says it was hard seeing her students struggle with online learning.
“We struggled a lot in the beginning and all of my kids struggled in different ways especially as the lockdowns continued and kids weren’t allowed to be on campus because it kind of went back and forth for a bit,” said Dodd.
Clovis Unified was the first public school district in Fresno County to let their students back on campus in late November 2020. In early April 2021, Fresno Unified allowed a majority of its students back on campus.
Governor Newsom passed a $6.6 billion school grant to give funding to school districts for PPE and other safety measures and add incentives for districts to hold in-person instruction. Fresno Unified will receive about $79 million and Clovis Unified will receive around $40 million.
Dr. Hank Gutierrez with the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools said Fresno County as a whole could receive around $200 million.
“School leaders are now able to have a little bit more flexibility with funding to offer those special programs and get creative with summer programs so students are not only learning but falling back in love with learning,” said Gutierrez.
That means more social workers on campus, holding additional summer courses, and offering after-school programs during the next academic year.
“There are setbacks and I feel like it is going to take a lot for most students to catch up. I know I am concerned about where my kids are supposed to be next year,” said Dodd.
Due to the pandemic, standardized tests were not taken last school year, but they will be taken at the end of the current school year. The standardized tests will show just how much potential damage the digital divide has done.