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Six-year-old Paolo De la Haza participates in a video conference with his class from his home in the northern suburbs.

Week One Of Remote Learning In Illinois Wraps Up With Frustration And Uncertainty

Kids around Illinois are wrapping up their first week of remote learning while schools are closed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. The statewide school closure is now extended through at least April 8 and Chicago Public Schools won’t open until April 21.

The quality of schooling taking place at Illinois homes varies widely across the state. Some students have access to digital learning with online interactions with their teachers. Others just have hard copy worksheets. Some kids need extra help with their work, and most parents aren’t teachers.

Tone Stockenstrom is juggling remote learning in her house as she tries to work while helping her kids with their school assignments. They go to King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School in north suburban Evanston.

“That’s a long time … to think about structuring days for three kids that can’t really interact with other kids,” Stockenstrom said.

Stockenstrom’s 6 year-old son, Paolo De la Haza has been having video conferences with his teacher and classmates for story time. “If you have a question, at the end of the story she’ll unmute you,” Paola said.

His oldest sister Olivia is in sixth grade and says every day has been a full school day and kind of overwhelming.

“I feel like we’re getting more work than actually at school,” she said.

For some kids, the e-learning hasn’t been rigorous enough. Oak Park and River Forest High School sophomore Amelia Hoog said she logs into Google Classroom each morning, and she’s done with her daily assignments in about an hour and a half.

“They just give you a worksheet, and they’re kind of like, ‘Do it and turn it in by tomorrow by 9 am,’” she said. “You’re not learning anything.”

Her sibling Shaun Trock, also a sophomore, feels the same way. He credits the teachers for doing what they can, and he said the administration is stretched thin, but it’s hard to stay focused.

“This e-learning, it’s not really learning. It’s more like e-doing,” he said. “We’re just filling in stuff.”

Shaun takes Advanced Placement classes, which can earn students college credit. He worries an extended closure could affect May AP testing. Test administrators are planning to give tests online if schools remain closed.

For now, school is a small part of Shaun’s day, followed by practicing a little music and playing a lot of video games.

Some teachers feel like they’re in a holding pattern with how they can keep students engaged. Carolyn Fritts teaches AP Research at Glenbard West High School in west suburban Glen Ellyn. She creates her lesson plans in the evening and makes herself available electronically during the day.

“Whether that’s recording videos explaining in more depth something that they have a question over or mostly just fielding emails right now,” she said.

She thinks she and other teachers have put together quality lessons for kids, but it doesn’t compare to being in school.

“The most important thing lost is the face-to-face with kids who especially need a lot of structure or need great adults in their life during the day,” Fritts said. “That’s what really tears me up the most is the social aspect with the students.”

Read more: All of WBEZ’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chicago and the region.

Many districts don’t have an e-learning program, but all students were supposed to be sent home with something to do. In north suburban Waukegan, Rosa Vara said her 8th grade son got a big packet of papers.

She said it was confusing at first because his assignments were mixed in with 6th and 7th grade work, and her son didn’t get much guidance on what to do. She said it’s strikingly different from her two other children; one at a Catholic school and one at a charter school.

Her oldest daughter Xitlali logs into her e-classes everyday and Vara will even get a notification if she doesn’t complete an assignment. But Xitlali isn’t sure how long this can last.

“If this goes to a longer period of time, it will be hard because they’re going to give you new things that you haven’t done before in class,” she said. “You’re not going to know, actually, what to do.”

Right now, e-learning isn’t available to every student in Illinois. Some don’t have access to the internet or a device. Those are some reasons why the Illinois State Board of Education recommended that work assigned during this time can only be used to improve a student’s grade. The state is considering how to revise that. It’s also looking into options to provide digital access to all students, but that won’t even out the disparities.

Chicago on Thursday extended its school closure to April 21, making it a five-week shutdown. The district said it’s preparing more work for students to do at home, but there are a lot of barriers for students.

“We have over 300 language learners at our school,” said teacher Annmarie Handley. “A lot of them are brand new to the country.”

Handley teaches English language learners at Sullivan High School, a Chicago Public School on the city’s North Side. She has about 85 students at varying skill levels. She invited them to sign on to an e-learning program, and only 20 signed up.

“With my kids abilities, and resources, all I can do is keep reaching out,” she said.

Handley said with businesses shutting down, some of her students’ families are left scrambling, adding more challenges to remote learning. She said the priority right now is making sure students are getting their most basic needs met.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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