When ‘Focus on Survival’ Trumps Learning

Residents line up for a food distribution center outside the Langley Park Community Center several weeks ago. Photo by Caryl Ashrey

This is the second in an occasional series on life in Langley Park, a largely immigrant community in Prince George’s County where difficult living conditions have been made worse by COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis.

Elementary school students wearing their pajamas and lounging in bed during Zoom classes. Others struggling to access class because they forgot their passwords.

A teen stuck in a basement apartment with her five brothers, trying to focus on school. Students and parents trying to simply survive in a pandemic hotspot, deciding whether to give up on school for now.

School officials making hundreds of calls to try to connect with every student, every family, as education moved abruptly online. Non-English speaking parents relying on their children to tell them what they were supposed to be doing in school.

Those scenes were common occurrences in Langley Park, the predominantly Hispanic section of northern Prince George’s County, as schools moved to emergency distance learning this spring. The area is home to low-income immigrant workers, hundreds of newcomers still learning English, and is a hotspot for COVID-19.

Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School. PGCPS photo

Educators, parents, and advocates said the school system’s largest tasks were providing technology and Internet access in an area where the digital divide is manifest; providing for basic needs, so children could focus on their studies; and helping parents understand what their children needed to do.

In the end, school officials say the majority of students engaged in online learning, but there were lessons for adults as well.

“To have to rely on a seven-year-old to explain to a parent what they’re supposed to be doing online is difficult,” said Maritza Solano, director of education with CASA, an advocacy group located in the heart of Langley Park.

When schools closed abruptly on March 12 due to the pandemic, teachers and school administrators across the state had to pivot to online learning with little warning. But educators in Langley Park faced additional challenges. This densely-populated area near Adelphi and College Park is 82% Hispanic, with more than 60% of its residents born outside of the U.S.

While nearly 9 out of 10 Prince George’s County residents have a high school degree or higher, fewer than 4 in 10 Langley Park residents have earned a high school diploma, according to U.S. Census figures.

A language other than English is spoken in most homes, Census figures show — largely Spanish or Mam, spoken in Guatemala. Residents live in crowded conditions, with multiple generations living in one- and two-bedroom apartments, and about one-quarter of homes don’t have an Internet connection.

COVID19 has devastated the community, which had the most cases of any ZIP code in the state as of last week, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

Initially, Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced on March 12 that schools would close for two weeks for deep-cleaning, but as the pandemic wore on, school closures were extended a few weeks at a time, and on April 14 schools reopened virtually, posing many challenges.

Online learning: Tech required

About one-quarter of Langley Park households are without Internet subscriptions, according to Census figures, so school officials quickly realized they would need to help families connect.

“The digital divide is real and we’ve seen it up close,” said Pamela Boozer-Strother, the Board of Education member whose District 3 includes Langley Park. “But the principals and teachers never gave up trying. They risked their own health to give out Chromebooks.”

Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School, with just under 900 students, loaned out more than 600 of the school system’s Chromebooks, as did Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School, which also serves Langley Park, school officials said. Chromebooks were limited to families without a computer, laptop, or tablet at home.

The Chromebooks were distributed in school parking lots between 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 1-3, but many parents who were working or didn’t have transportation were unable to attend.

Karen C. Woodson, principal at Mother Jones, said she, teachers, and her parent engagement team — including the Community Schools coordinator, parent engagement assistant, and three counselors — had to help panicked parents understand that “Chromebooks weren’t the only method for children to get to Google Classroom.”

They could use desktop computers or phones, or if they couldn’t get on the Internet, students could watch daily lessons broadcast on the school system’s TV channel and work with paper packets.

Meanwhile, school and county officials and advocates helped families sign up for free or low-cost Internet. Prince George’s County Public Schools allocated $2 million to help provide broadband access for students, and worked with Comcast and Verizon to provide free or low-cost Internet for $9.95 per month, a PGCPS spokeswoman said. The school system also turned on WiFi at several schools throughout the county to allow students and staff to connect from parking lots.

Even teachers struggled to connect. About 200 county teachers reported they didn’t have WiFi at home, said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association.

“A lot were younger teachers who’ll go to Starbucks or McDonald’s and use WiFi there,” Dudley said.

Entry level teachers in the county earn $48,498.

Prince George’s County Educators’ Association President Theresa Mitchell Dudley. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

“[School officials] told us they could go sit outside schools and try to get on the Internet that comes out of the building. What if I don’t have a car? I’m a new teacher, I take Metro to work, and now you want me to sit outside and try to do my lessons?”

Dudley said Comcast and Verizon should make their low-cost Internet plans available to teachers as well as students in the future.

Once the technology was in place, many students struggled to log in to virtual classrooms. Prince George’s County Council member Deni L. Taveras (D), whose District 2 includes Langley Park, received calls from constituents trying to help their children log in.

“They tried to call the school and got no answer because the schools were closed,” Taveras said. “[Virtual] lessons had started and parents were concerned. They wanted to make sure their children were online and able to do their school work.”

Teachers and school administrators struggled to help non-English speaking immigrant parents, many of whom do not have literacy skills in their own languages.

“Logins were a big deal, especially for families without literacy,” said Woodson, the Mother Jones Elementary School principal.

Some parents don’t know the letters of the alphabet, she said, and teachers were trying to explain passwords with upper case and lower case letters. The school created videos to help.

Some schools had a head start on getting technology to students before the pandemic. International High School at Langley Park has a 1:1 program through which all students are issued devices that they carry home each day. The five-year-old school of 350 students is made up of 100% English Language Learners, said Principal Carlos M. Beato.

Mother Jones began a 1:1 program for its 3rd to 5th graders last fall, giving those students a leg up when it came to virtual learning, according to Woodson. Still, some students forgot their IDs and needed passwords and user names reset, she said.

Families with low-cost Internet found it could sometimes be hard to stay on a 45-minute Zoom class, said Dudley, the teachers’ union president. And students were frequently sharing devices with siblings or even parents.

Lillian Garcia of Adelphi said she and her 5th grade daughter were both overwhelmed at the beginning, when her daughter repeatedly had trouble logging in. Garcia’s toddler son was thrilled to have his big sister home and would go into her room, offer hugs, and grab things – including the computer.

“She was doing homework, and he started playing,” Garcia said. “Next thing we noticed, he knocked her laptop off the desk and broke it. It was in two parts.”

That was the family’s only laptop, purchased a few years ago when the girl started having computer class at school. Fortunately, Garcia’s mother-in-law was able to send a new computer as an early birthday present.

Basic needs: ‘They had to focus on survival’

When schools closed in March, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School was in the midst of registering a record number of newcomers to the U.S. – about 175 students, largely from Guatemala, now living in Langley Park and its environs, said Woodson, the school’s principal. Eighty-five percent of the school’s 1,100 students are English Language Learners.

Children already tasked with learning English plus subjects such as math, science and social studies, had to add the third task of learning virtually, Woodson said.

Karen C. Woodson, principal of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School in Adelphi. Twitter photo

“We had a record number of newcomers newly arrived to the U.S. speaking little-to-no English enrolling at their own grade level. What happens when we shift to the distance learning environment for them?” Woodson asked.

The three elementary schools, one middle school, and two high schools that serve Langley Park are all home to many newcomers who live in poverty. Kids may suffer trauma, have disrupted educations, and live in crowded conditions, said Beato of International High School. Many are undocumented and thus not eligible for various government assistance, he added.

“Because of the nature in which some of these households live – overcrowding, 10 people to a one-to two-bedroom apartment – literally there isn’t any space for a child to get an education because the radio is running, the TV is on in the background,” said Taveras, the County Council member.

Morelys Urbano, 18, now a rising senior at High Point High School, was able to study at home with her mother and brother. But one of her friends lives with her parents and five brothers in a one-bedroom basement apartment.

Previously, that friend did her homework at an after-school program run by CASA that she and Urbano attend, but in virtual learning, the friend showed up to Zoom classes with her three younger brothers, whom she babysat while her parents worked, playing noisily in the background, Urbano said.

“The teachers tried to do their best,” Urbano said. “The situation was at a point nobody could control.”

Morelys Urbano, a rising senior at High Point High School. Family photo

Urbano considers herself organized, but had trouble keeping track of assignments and juggling up to 16 assignments in one week. “If it’s hard for me, it must be 10 times harder for English Language Learners,” said Urbano, who was born in the Dominican Republic and has been in the U.S. for two years.

Still, she saw teachers go above and beyond. When students complained that it was hard to study online when they were used to paper, and that they missed their teacher’s study packets, Urbano’s AP Spanish literature teacher made up paper packets, then dropped them off in students’ mailboxes, Urbano said.

Meanwhile, other adults realized families must satisfy basic needs before they could focus on education.

CASA used its Solidarity Fund to offer $250 gift cards to families to pay for food and Internet, Solano said. At International High School, Beato converted money meant for celebrations and used it to buy two weeks’ worth of groceries for families in need.

Thanks to what some termed fortunate timing, all public schools serving Langley Park except for High Point High School became “community schools” this year, offering wraparound services targeting physical and mental health as part of a “down payment” on Maryland’s “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” drafted by the so-called Kirwan Commission.

The first community schools coordinators started work in January, and those in place, such as the one at Mother Jones, were able to help with outreach to families.

“We knew exactly which kids were having the most difficulty, we knew who had COVID,” said Beato, the International High School principal.

Initially, many students were missing-in-action. Teachers, principals, counselors, and other school employees called hundreds of families. School officials said they did not yet have attendance figures, but said they had made contact with the vast majority of students, some of whom left the area.

In a survey of school systems conducted by the Maryland State Department of Education, the Prince George’s County Public Schools reported that 78% of students had signed on to distance learning in a given week, and 4% had never been reached or logged on as of May 11, similar to estimates that Langley Park teachers and principals gave.

Some students had to give up on education for now, Beato said. “They had to focus on survival – having someplace to sleep at night, food on the table. For some of our students, supporting a family or supporting themselves is a priority.”

Teachers were flexible, awarding students credit for work handed in late even if the student didn’t attend the live session, he said. They understood that some students had to babysit younger siblings or care for their own children, or share a computer with a sibling.

Attendance was spotty, said Tish Martinez, a math resource teacher at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School. “Some people had half the class, others had everyone. In the end, more than three-quarters were on there.”

Many students were as dedicated as when they were in the buildings, educators said. “One little boy even raised his hand during a Zoom session to ask if he could go to the bathroom,” Martinez said.

Parents: Unsure what their children were supposed to do

Once school moved online, teachers were required to hold two 30-45 minute sessions per day and virtual office hours, working from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Some parents thought their kids could log on any time between 9-1 and didn’t understand sessions were scheduled at particular times. Newcomers relying on their children to interpret struggled if their children were not tech savvy, said Solano.

“Parents just don’t know what their kids are supposed to be doing, what the schedule looks like, what are the tasks they should be doing,” Solano said. “They didn’t know they could log in to the school website or parent portal.”

Some students would click on an assignment and turn it in blank, said Martinez, the Langley Park-McCormick teacher. She would contact the parents to troubleshoot, and the parent would say, “My child says he’s doing the work; you’re saying he’s not.”

Just days after schools closed, Mother Jones Elementary created a Facebook page to more easily communicate with parents because Facebook automatically translates into a variety of languages, Woodson said.

Many meetings and information sessions were held via Zoom, and bilingual teachers and administrators did their best to translate. Mother Jones held a parent town hall in English and Spanish on June 3-4 to discuss summer.

But translations weren’t always correct, said Urbano, the student. At one Zoom parent meeting she attended with her mother in order to translate, officials said in English that students could still pass with a grade of “Incomplete,” but in Spanish it was translated to say students with “Incompletes” would not pass, she said.

Still, teachers worked long past the official end of the day at 1 p.m. reaching out to parents via Class Dojo, Remind, and a variety of other digital tools.

School officials say they will begin the school year with assessments to identify any learning gaps. But some observers warned about learning losses due to missed time with teachers and lack of practicing English for English Language Learners, as well as missed opportunities for social and emotional growth.

“Even though teachers may be doing all they can to teach students in this situation, it doesn’t compare to them being in school,” said Solano. CASA started a virtual English class for students who were no longer practicing the language in school. “So we are probably going to have a huge academic slump in the next few years.”

Prince George’s County Councilmember Deni L. Taveras (D).

“I feel for the fact all these children have lost so much time not being close to a teacher that can guide them along,” said Taveras, the council member. “This may affect our upcoming educational outcomes, despite the fact I feel Dr. [Monica] Goldson is doing the best she can given the situation,” she said, referring to the public schools’ CEO.

Meanwhile, parents who struggled to help their children and supervise their learning appreciate teachers better. “God knows we learned [teachers’] value in COVID-19,” said Tavares.

Moving forward: Lessons learned

While schools, teachers, parents, and students did the best they could in an unprecedented emergency situation, it wasn’t just the students who learned lessons. Moving forward, stakeholders cited everything from the need to send home manipulatives, more hands-on learning tools, and even paper to re-thinking public education, and many issues in between.

For most students, academic gaps may not be as broad as parents fear, educators said. The last quarter of school, the portion that was online, is mostly review, they said, and students will be assessed in the fall.

For now, there is no data about the extent of learning loss. But at a news conference last month, state school superintendent Karen B. Salmon said school districts will be required to “determine where their students are instructionally, identify the gaps in learning, and prepare a path for instructional success and recovery. A system must also be in place to track student attendance and engagement in distance learning activities.”

This summer, Prince George’s County Public Schools is offering a free virtual learning program for grades Pre-K-12, schools spokeswoman Gabrielle Brown wrote in an email. Elementary instruction will primarily use the school system’s TV station, and secondary school will be virtual.

To facilitate summer school, PGCPS has placed WiFi antennas on every school and PGCPS administrative buildings to allow students and families to utilize parking lots for WiFi, in addition to the internet the county is paying for through Comcast and Verizon, Brown wrote.

Boozer-Strother urged funding of the recommendations of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which she said would play a key role in moving schools forward. In May, Hogan vetoed the $3.4 billion plan, citing the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Pamela Boozer-Strother, a member of the Prince George’s County Board of Education who represents Langley Park.

“Tutoring, more services for special education and English Language Learners – that’s the recovery right there,” Boozer-Strother said. “It’s not just the money, it’s the entire model of equity.”

Many educators said they would like to increase parent engagement, helping parents understand that they don’t need to speak English to help their children. Parents also need clear directions about expectations.

The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink public education, Beato said.

“We need to think about the needs [students] come with: immigrant students, students who don’t have health insurance, who have never been in school before they came to the U.S. or only went to school a half-day, kids with experience working, kids having their own kids – look at all those different facets of who kids are,” Beato said.

“’Seat time’ doesn’t work for all kids. Are we giving them the opportunity to go to school at night or to learn from home? Are we giving them different opportunities to meet their goals and dreams of high school graduation?”

Lisa Nevans Locke is a freelance writer who has covered education, local and federal government, and other issues in the region for more than 25 years. She has written for The Washington Times, Bethesda Magazine, Scholastic.com, The74million.org and the now-extinct Montgomery Journal, and she teaches writing at Montgomery College. 

She can be reached at [email protected]

Click here to read the first installment of the series.