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‘I’m horrified that we didn’t get this right’: Worcester schools see rocky rollout of online learning

Slow computer distribution, limits on teacher outreach kept thousands of Worcester students from participating fully in online learning

Mia McDonald, with a Chromebook, said it took 10 weeks for her daughter Helena, (in back, left) and her four siblings to get two Chromebooks from Worcester Public Schools after schools closed.
Mia McDonald, with a Chromebook, said it took 10 weeks for her daughter Helena, (in back, left) and her four siblings to get two Chromebooks from Worcester Public Schools after schools closed.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

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For more than two months after schools closed in March, thousands of children in the state’s second-largest district lacked full access to the two things most essential to continue learning from home: computers and direct contact with their teachers.

Until Worcester officials finally began distributing laptops in May, many students were unable to take part in online learning at all because they didn’t have access. Even students who did often ran into problems because of another policy: District officials discouraged teachers from talking one-on-one with students on Zoom, fearing lawsuits if a student recorded a teacher saying something inappropriate, for instance.

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Now, as summer vacation starts, Worcester officials have yet to assess the damage done to the education of 25,000 Worcester students. They have no idea how many students’ schooling ground to a halt in March, since they have yet to analyze fully data on the numbers who logged into online classes.

“I’m horrified that we didn’t get this right,” said Worcester School Committee member Jack Foley. “We failed these kids.”

School districts across the state have struggled with the abrupt shift to online learning. But Worcester has had an unusually rocky experience. Interviews with more than 20 parents, students, teachers, and school committee members, and a review of a half dozen district documents paint a portrait of a district focused on process and procedure at a time when nimbleness was imperative.

Instead of rapidly handing out the thousands of laptops on hand, for instance, district officials developed an onerous distribution system that took months to complete; and instead of encouraging teachers to connect with students whenever and however they could, they put severe limits on outreach and communication.

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“I’m traumatized and disappointed,” said parent Jenny Rodriguez, speaking in Spanish. The El Salvadoran immigrant’s ninth and 12th graders have attended Worcester public schools for the last nine years. Rodriguez said her younger child’s teachers never got in touch — even when Rodriguez asked repeatedly for clarification on what was expected of him. “Worcester Public Schools doesn’t seem to understand the needs of students and families,” she said.

Sixty percent of Worcester students come from low-income families. The district has the highest rate of homelessness in the state, at 13 percent. Nearly a third of students are still learning English.

Superintendent Maureen Binienda blamed some of the struggles on years of underfunding of schools, which, she said, prevented the district from buying Chromebooks for every student — much less create Internet hot spots. (Worcester spends $14,468 per student, compared to $21,903 in Boston.)

“We mobilized and still provided an education for our students with (paper) packets and phone calls,” said Binienda. “I’m really proud of the work that got done. Is it perfect? No, it wasn’t perfect ... we had a lot of things we had to get through.”

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Before the school closures, the district already had leased 17,000 Chromebooks. But the computers were meant for in-class use, Binienda explained, and district officials did not initially consider sending the laptops home when schools were forced to close.

Instead, at the end of March, Worcester officials began to survey all 25,000 students in the district about their technology needs, including automated calls asking if students still needed a computer or Internet. “We wanted to be organized and thoughtful,” said Binienda, so that students only received a school laptop if they needed one.

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The two-week survey found about 1,400 students reported they didn’t have a computer at home and 3,500 said they didn’t have Internet access.

That immediately raised questions about reliability since a previous district survey had shown that about a quarter of students who responded lacked access to any device at all — computer, phone, or tablet — for schoolwork.

School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick said the new data seemed flawed. “Surveys were done via telephone and parents would push the wrong button,” she said.

Meanwhile, other districts were able to distribute computers much more quickly. In Boston, for example, staff distributed more than 20,000 Chromebooks within two weeks of school closing. And the school district in Lawrence distributed the 10,000 devices it had within the first three weeks.

In Worcester, even after the survey was complete, school staff devoted another week to analyzing the results and coming up with a list of students who most needed computers. By that point in April, many teachers had been holding online classes for several days. (During the first few weeks of school closure, officials sent home paper packets to students and created a website with lessons for students to learn on their own.)

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It wasn’t until the end of April that officials were finally ready to distribute the computers to the 1,400 students flagged by the survey. That’s when the superintendent reached out to the local Department of Public Health and the city manager for assistance. By Binienda’s account, those officials requested a two-week delay because the growing number of coronavirus cases in Worcester made distribution unsafe.

“We certainly honored (that) because we did not want to help spread the virus or for our staff members to get it,” said Binienda.

School Committee member John Monfredo defended the district’s work, saying officials “tried to do everything to meet the needs of a very vulnerable population.” He added that “we’ve got a superintendent who works 24/7.”

Yet by the time Worcester started delivering its first Chromebooks in mid-May, students had been out of school for nearly two months.

“How am I supposed to get help if they don’t hold class?” said Jessenia Kolaco, who fears she didn’t pass her Advanced Placement exams and won’t get college credit when she enrolls at Framingham State University in the fall.
“How am I supposed to get help if they don’t hold class?” said Jessenia Kolaco, who fears she didn’t pass her Advanced Placement exams and won’t get college credit when she enrolls at Framingham State University in the fall.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

For weeks, 15-year-old Helena McDonald shared one computer that the family had purchased with her four siblings. Their Internet connection was weak, making it difficult to get online much less interact with teachers in real time. “It was frustrating,” said the teen.

Since Helena’s family had one computer on hand, they had to wait until the second round of distribution. The family finally received two computers to share in May, near the end of the school year.

McDonald hopes she won’t be behind her classmates when school resumes. She didn’t get to attend any algebra classes after mid-March. “This is the basis of all future math she’ll be taking,” said her mother, Mia.

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“It’s unfair and inequitable,” Mia McDonald added. “My kids have a legal right to access a quality education. And that was taken away.”

Binienda said the district decided to distribute the computers in stages based on the level of need and eventually handed out all 17,000 Chromebooks. She’s trying to find money for 6,000 more so no student has to share one at home. Worcester also recently bought and distributed 3,500 hot spots for families to use over the summer.

For Foley, the School Committee member, the problems have stemmed from an overwhelming focus on process, which in this case made it way too difficult to “deliver the thing people need most.”

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Compounding the technology shortcomings, families and teachers alike report that their interaction was limited — at the district’s request. That made it much harder for teachers to solve the myriad problems that came up as students adjusted to getting their education online.

Two current teachers and one former staff member said the district has long discouraged them from communicating directly with families — a pattern that became problematic during the pandemic. (The teachers did not want to be named because they feared retribution.)

In guidelines released in early April, Worcester school officials advised teachers that one-on-one video conferencing with students “should be rare” without explaining why. In another piece of guidance that month, officials said teachers must have principals present in individual conferences with students. These directives ran counter to state recommendations that teachers communicate one-on-one with students as much as possible, including through video conferencing.

“Everything that they’ve sent out about contacting parents has always had a lot of caveats in it,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named out of fear of losing a job. “Don’t do this. Don’t do that. And it’s because they’re afraid of lawsuits.”

There have been so many restrictions around using Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, the teacher added, that “a lot of teachers (were) not doing it at all.”

Some teachers said the guidelines did not restrict communication with students — and that they even got closer to families after schools closed. “I’ve definitely spoken to my parents in the last few months more than I normally did,” said Melissa Shultz, a sixth grade teacher at City View Discovery School. “Communication was an expectation at my school.”

Binienda said the guidelines were intended to protect teachers against false or unfair accusations from students and to make sure sensitive situations are dealt with by administrators with the most training and knowledge. “We’re protecting the student and the teacher,” she said.

The district also required teachers to read a statement before every live class: “The rules in school apply to this remote classroom experience,” read the disclaimer. “Students must treat each other with respect during our time together and must obey school rules.” (Boston, by contrast, did not require this kind of statement.)

One math teacher said the heavy-handed statement discouraged some students from attending. “It felt like big brother was watching you,” he said.

Families say they, too, felt the effects of the constraints.

Seventeen-year-old Jessenia Kolaco had very few Zoom meetings for her classes, including Advanced Placement courses in government and statistics at the district’s Claremont Academy. Kolaco said she would have benefited from small tutoring sessions, but she was told it was prohibited.

“How am I supposed to get help if they don’t hold class?” said Kolaco. She fears she didn’t pass her AP exams and won’t get college credit when she enrolls at Framingham State University in the fall.

Melannys Diaz Goither, 18, finished her senior year without hearing directly from her teachers at North High School, save for a handful of e-mails. Without a laptop, she also completed only a few assignments at home and wasn’t able to take her Advanced Placement Spanish exam.

Goither is still learning English. She emigrated last year from Colombia to join her mother, who packs boxes at a Sam’s Club warehouse in Worcester. She hasn’t spoken English since schools closed in mid-March.

With no word from her teachers, Goither was uncertain until the last day of school whether she would even be able to graduate on time.

That day brought good news, but Goither fears she will be behind at community college this fall. “Worcester should think more about families who don’t have money,” said Goither, speaking in Spanish.

Worcester school officials have no idea how many students might be in the same situation as Goither — deprived of most learning over the last three months — because they haven’t compiled data including student login rates.

Four School Committee members filed a formal request at the end of May for the administration to report on “student involvement in remote learning” broken down by race and ethnicity, whether the student is an English learner or has parents who speak a language other than English, school and grade level, and Internet access. So far, they’ve received nothing.

Boston, by comparison, has released basic login information since the middle of April and has provided more granular data since then analyzed by race and ethnicity, income, special education, and English learner status.

“We are analyzing the data now,” said Binienda. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that in some cases participation rates were disturbingly low. Six teachers interviewed report anywhere from 4 to 50 percent of students logging into live classes.

Binienda said she plans to release more data — including how many students received teacher feedback on assignments — to the School Committee in mid-July.

“I want to see who was missed and what happened,” said Laura Clancey, one of the committee members who requested the information. “No matter what, I think we’ll have a lot of catch up to do with all students.”



Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.