Little girl learning on a computer

With the School Year Approaching, Serious Barriers to Education Persist Among South Seattle Students

by Carolyn Bick

Rainier Beach High School freshman Fatima Kabba says it’s really hard for her to learn from home, even with a good internet connection.

“Sometimes, it’s pretty hard, because you can’t find, like, a quiet space to do your work,” Kabba said. “And sometimes there’s other people with different classes, and sometimes you might share the same room with your siblings, so it might be hard for you to concentrate. If we did have online classes, imagine having seven siblings, each one [on] a device — and you’re probably in separate rooms, but you’re going to hear their noises.”

Still, despite the difficulties, Kabba considers herself relatively fortunate, compared with some of her peers who are trying to learn from home during the novel coronavirus pandemic. She was among the students who received a take-home laptop from her high school, and said most of her teachers have been communicative, making extra time to help her understand any schoolwork and assignments she has been struggling with. Some of her peers who relied on the library to access technology and who don’t have that access anymore are really struggling, she said. She has heard the hotspots that Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has given out are tortoise-slow and don’t work very well.

Chelsea Gallegos, a social worker with the educational equity group Washington Building Leaders of Change (WA-BLOC), said that noisy home lives and difficulties finding technology or a reliable internet connection are common among students she works with. Most of the time, she said, it’s even more difficult for students to do their work because of the many family  responsibilities they’ve shouldered due to the pandemic. 

Many people of color hold essential jobs in places like grocery stores, hospitals, and restaurants, Gallegos said. This  means that they can’t be home with their kids, who are currently unable to go to school. Thus, some of Gallegos’ students have taken on caregiver roles, teaching and watching over the younger kids in the household while their parents work. This means these older students have less time to devote to their own studies, which can be particularly problematic if they struggle with some subjects.

It also doesn’t help when family members have to share devices, Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian said. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so much time for students to learn. If their parents are working, older students have to figure out how to distribute learning time among themselves and any younger household members if the household only has a few computers or tablets. He said several of his students have run into such problems.

“Some students only had a phone, which made connecting with the class assignments much harder,” Hagopian said. “Trying to do research and write papers on your phone is incredibly challenging … especially when you’re dealing with the kind of stress our students are under, oftentimes having to watch siblings during the day and help with their studies, and some having to work as well.”

Besides, Hagopian said, even if there are enough devices, sometimes the internet isn’t fast enough to handle large data loads, rendering learning, uploading or downloading assignments, or participating in video classroom calls on Zoom difficult to impossible.

Since May, partly in partnership with Amazon, SPS has distributed several thousand laptops and hundreds of hotspots to students throughout the system. In partnership with Comcast and Wave, SPS recently announced it will offer free internet to low-income families for up to six months. 

Gallegos said she and others helped collectively deliver between 100-200 hotspots to students. But these were only the students they managed to reach by using listed phone numbers and addresses. There were many others Gallegos and her colleagues did not reach.

“How do you even identify this kind of need, if you can’t send them an email about it? So, I am sure there were a bunch of people who we even missed that didn’t have internet and still don’t have internet,” Gallegos said.

Both Gallegos and Hagopian said this could have easily been prevented if SPS had taken more proactive measures before the pandemic even came to the United States. Gallegos pointed out that SPS “could have demanded [money] from the city for these equity issues, instead of waiting for a pandemic.” She also noted that the city spends almost $400 million on the Seattle Police Department, part of which goes towards policing students in schools. 

“Now all the people that don’t have internet are completely cut out from access to their education,” Gallegos said. “I think WA-BLOC would take more of a macro perspective around that — that we are spending [hundreds of millions] on policing our youth, encasing our youth … and on a new jail for youth. But we have a ton of youth in the city that don’t even have internet.” 

Hagopian said it was “a scramble” in the spring to try to reach his students, and he still hasn’t been able to check in on all of them. It’s as though they’ve vanished, even though he knows they are still out there and probably in need. This is particularly concerning because the federal government deemed it necessary to only send out one $1,200 check as part of the first national pandemic relief package called the CARES Act.

“There is a lack of support and a lack of a social safety net in this country. Almost every other country provides a monthly check right now to families so that they can mitigate this disaster. But, our country, you got one check — if you were lucky,” Hagopian said. “And that didn’t go too far.”

This lack of support directly ties into two even more troubling, increasingly common situations: financial instability and housing instability. Some students — children — have taken jobs at fast food restaurants, sacrificing learning time to support their families for any number of reasons, Hagopian said. Their parents or guardians may have lost their jobs or have been put on reduced work hours. Students’ parents or guardians might have become sick themselves. They may have even died. And just because students are young doesn’t mean they are immune to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“They are at risk of contracting COVID[-19], by working these essential jobs. We know that the disease oftentimes impacts younger people less than older people, but also, it does impact young people, and there are instances of kids getting violently ill … or even dying,” Hagopian said. “But then they are also at risk of bringing that disease back into their home and infecting one of their loved ones who’s older.”

Other students’ families are facing eviction altogether down the road. Though Gov. Jay Inslee extended the moratorium on evictions through Oct. 15, this doesn’t mean these families get rent forgiveness. Gallegos said some landlords have illegally tried to pre-emptively kick out families from their homes, and WA-BLOC has had to intervene by alerting state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. 

Most of these families are relatively safe for now, but unless the state can find the money to grant rent forgiveness, these students and their families may find themselves without a roof over their heads.

During a press conference on Aug. 5, Inslee laid the blame for this uncertainty at the U.S. Congress’ feet.

“We are waiting to see if Congress will come through with further assistance for the state to see what might be in the realm of all these things that we might like to do, including further help for schools, and we are very, very on tenterhooks waiting for that Congress to come through,” Inslee said. “We have to … see what Congress is going to do to determine whether we would have the financial wherewithal to make up [those] rental payments. At the moment, we do not, but we have to see what Congress is going to do, to see if there is some other avenue that is open to us.”

Even if these students and their families make it through this emergency, the lost school time may take a severe toll on their futures, Hagopian said, particularly if SPS doesn’t continue its policy of giving all students passing grades or at least give each situation individual consideration on a case-by-case basis. 

In normal times, students of color are at particularly high risk of falling into what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, in which students who are suspended or expelled are much more likely to fall into the juvenile and, eventually, adult detention system. If SPS sets the expectation that students must sign into Schoology, the student portal, every day or complete their assigned schoolwork and homework, it’s likely many of them won’t be able to keep up because of the conditions described above. This could lead to punitive measures, Hagopian said, which have been shown to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

While he didn’t say students would be jailed for not completing homework or signing into the student portal every day, it’s not necessarily out of the realm of possibility: Earlier this year, a 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan was jailed for 78 hours for not getting up for school or turning in any schoolwork.

Though Gallegos and Hagopian believe SPS has taken steps in the right direction, both believe there is so much more the district, the city, and even the state could be doing to help young people. Both of them believe high-speed internet access everywhere in the city is long overdue, and Hagopian said it should be a free public utility. Hagopian also said the state also must address its regressive tax system, which has been shown to have a disproportionately negative impact on low-income families. They also both believe that some of the money currently being used to fund the city’s police department should be put into education.

They both also believe it’s important for students to be learning about more than just standard school subjects, given the push for Black Lives Matter and other global events. Hagopian said that, historically, his students have been “most successful when I tied what we were learning in the classroom to what they cared most about and what they were experiencing in the world.”

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here or here.

Featured image from Pexels.

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