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How distance learning illuminates disparities among students and teachers

Distance learning proved a difficult experiment for many students, teachers and parents this year. Its urgent adoption underscored gaps in access and income. Now, school districts are scrambling to figure out how to adjust plans for the fall. We hear from viewers about their own school experiences, and William Brangham talks to Mark Bedell, superintendent of Missouri's Kansas City Public Schools.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Distance learning, or learning from home, has been a difficult experiment for many and underscores gaps in access, income and race.

    School districts are now trying to figure out the fall.

    William Brangham looks at that, right after we hear from some viewers about their own experiences.

  • Josie Kincaid:

    My name is Josie Kincaid. I'm a second grade teacher in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Most of my students are primarily Spanish-speaking as their first language. Online learning in one sentence or one — one-half a sentence, it would just be organized chaos, and sometimes not even organized, just chaos.

  • Maria Sanchez:

    I live in the state of California. I have two children. Because we didn't have Internet at home or Wi-Fi, we had to look for a provider, and we only have — there's only one provider that services our area. And, well, that narrows it to that one provider. So whatever they're charging is — we're going to have to pay.

  • Julia Garcia:

    My name is Julia Garcia. I am the mother of a 12-year-old girl. I live in California. And she just finished sixth grade of distance learning.

    It is exclusively self-guided. And I do believe that built into that system is an assumption that there is a parent at home that is sufficiently familiar with technology, that is sufficiently comfortable with some teaching methods in general, and that has time and availability to engage with the student on some level.

  • Uyen Campbell:

    So, the teachers have done a terrific job. My kids have a lot of A.P. classes and — or orchestra classes, you know, things that you would think would be difficult with distance learning.

    But the teachers did a great job with the A.P. classes, the orchestra classes, maintaining the workload for the students, communicating with the students.

  • Judi Hayes:

    My name is Judi Hayes. I live in Florida. I have my husband, and then we have two sons who are 12 and 9. Our 9-year-old has Down syndrome.

    We have found that, in terms of distance learning, even though our principal and the paraprofessional and the teachers have undertaken what I would consider to be Herculean efforts to try to get him the help that he needs, it really just isn't working, because he doesn't have as much assistance as he needs to get him to attend to his task and to — just to be as successful as he needs to be.

  • Meagan Reed:

    My name is Meagan Reed, and I am a sixth grade math teacher. I have two daughters. My youngest is in second grade, and my oldest is in fifth grade.

    Honestly, I can use the word terrified about distance learning in the fall. I just — I feel like no one knows. It's new territory. We don't know what we're going through. And everyone is so up in the air and — about it and how it should work and what it should look like.

  • Elizabeth Wayland Seal:

    I live in Rhode Island. I have four kids. The youngest is 7. The oldest is 14. Two of them have autism spectrum.

    Distance learning in the fall, if my 7-year-old has distance learning in the fall, I can't. He can't. I can't. No. No, no, no.

  • Bill Singer:

    I have two boys, Alec, who's 11, and Matteo, who's 14.

    The idea that kids will wear a mask in the classroom, that they will stay six feet apart, I feel that was all made up by people who've never actually been in the classroom.

  • Colleen Vasconcellos:

    Do I want it to continue? How do you keep 5-year-olds, when you have 20 of them in one classroom, socially distanced?

    That's a concern that I have, especially when 5- and 6-year-olds put everything in their mouth, and they touch everything. And it creates almost a petri dish environment even outside of COVID.

  • William Brangham:

    As you just heard, there are a lot of different opinions about how best to educate kids in the middle of this pandemic.

    And we turn now to someone whose sole job is doing just that.

    Dr. Mark Bedell is the superintendent of Kansas City's public schools in Missouri. He oversees the education of more than 15,000 students, many of them black and brown students, and 100 percent of them qualify for free school lunches.

    Superintendent Bedell, very good to see you.

    I see, from your outfit today, you have been presiding over some of the many graduations you're having. Congratulations today.

    Before we talk about what happens come fall, could you just tell us a little bit about how this year was educating at a distance?

  • Mark Bedell:

    Well, I will tell you, we learned a lot about some of the disparities that exist inside of the urban corridor of Kansas City.

    And when this pandemic hit us towards the end of March, and we realized that, while we may have devices, a lot of our families did not have Wi-Fi access or, even more, broadband access, and we felt that that had put us already behind the eight-ball once that first week in April started.

  • William Brangham:

    So, literally, you couldn't even go on the assumption that every kid could access a digital classroom.

  • Mark Bedell:

    That's correct.

  • William Brangham:

    So, that's a huge challenge just to get kids over that technical hurdle.

    How did the instruction go over the course of the year?

  • Mark Bedell:

    So, I will tell you that our district worked hard to create a digital platform that included professional development for our teachers.

    But I think that's something that we ran into where a number of our teachers had opportunities to do the digital professional development, and we found that we had teachers in different tiers. Some were exemplary. There's a number of them that would fall in that average category. And then we had some that was in the lacking category, where they needed more intensive support.

  • William Brangham:

    So, do you have plans? What's going to happen come fall for you guys?

  • Mark Bedell:

    Well, I can tell you right now we have ordered enough laptops that everybody in our system, even including our pre-K kids, will be able to have a device.

    So if we're in a situation where we have to go 100 percent virtual, our school district is prepared. We have enough Wi-Fi hot spots right now in stock available for our families.

    And so what I'm doing now is working with a federal task force here to be able to provide broadband Internet connectivity, not just for the urban communities, but we're also looking at it for the rural communities, because we have a number of rural communities that are impacted, just like we are, without having the connectivity.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, obviously, there's so many costs associated with teaching in a pandemic. Do you have the budget you need to educate the kids the way you think they should be educated?

  • Mark Bedell:

    What I will tell you is, because we have been excellent stewards of our budget, we do have a very healthy fund balance here in the Kansas City Public School District.

    Our board is in the process of getting ready to approve the budget for tomorrow. But when I don't have all the information that I need right now — we're still waiting on some guidance from our state Department of Education. We're still waiting for guidance from our Health Department. We are still waiting on and guidance from the CDC.

    And what we told our board is, we would love to be able to come back, probably some time in mid-July, now that we're starting to collect survey data from our families, to say, here's the things that we have learned. Here's what we believe we will need in order to get through the school year, if A — scenario A happens, scenario B, or scenario C.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Superintendent Mark Bedell of the Kansas City Public Schools, congratulations on graduation. I hope you have a good summer. And good luck in the fall.

  • Mark Bedell:

    Thank you. And I appreciate you having us participate in this hearing.

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