'I'm Really Struggling': In 6 Home Classrooms, Families Keep Learning Alive In A Pandemic

Apr 7, 2020

Journalists from The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper and Cincinnati Public Radio's 91.7 WVXU shared resources to produce this in-depth look at how K-12 students are adjusting to remote learning amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

For the foreseeable future, home learning has replaced the school classroom in Ohio and Kentucky. 

School districts throughout the Cincinnati region adapted on the fly to continue educating their students while combating a pandemic. The shift from schoolhouses to impromptu classrooms in homes across the region hasn't been easy for families or educators.

An array of obstacles threaten continued learning amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Laura Mitchell said recently that the district planned to issue computers on March 16 for student use in homes. In the classroom, students in fourth grade and up used devices such as iPads.

But the district closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus on the day devices were to be handed out, and schools haven't been open since.

Today, many are being stored, unused, in now-quiet school buildings.

It's just one example of the strains facing all school districts, not just CPS, during the crisis.

Inconsistent access to technology and specialists for language and special education services are among the most pressing issues. Such challenges always existed, but the crisis has amplified them.

With education as it was known upended, The Enquirer and WVXU teamed up to sit or phone in with six families on Thursday to find out what a day of learning at home looks like and to share struggles and triumphs.

10 a.m. – 'I miss the whole school environment'

Savannah Scott, 18, stands in front of her home in Westwood on Thursday, April 2, 2020. She is a senior at Dater High School and a class officer.
Credit Meg Vogel / Cincinnati Enquirer

Gilbert A. Dater High School senior Savannah Scott had her sights on prom and graduation since the ninth grade.

She had a long lavender dress with roses on the train made before the pandemic brought the school's planning to a halt.

Scott, 18, said she misses school, especially since it's her last year. "I'm a cool person so I'm cool with a lot of people," she said. "I just miss the whole school environment. My AP teacher and English teacher. My after-school activity is Pearl, which is a girls swimming club."

Now that she's shifted to distance learning at her Westwood home, she's been waking up around 10:00 in the morning to check her assignments on Schoology. Students in multiple school districts have reported site performance issues making it difficult to use the platform. CPS officials say they're working with IT to expand the capacity of the site to keep up with the increased traffic.

The only thing standing between Scott and a successful high school final semester is passing her mandatory English credit this semester. Then she's off to the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash to study pre-health.

She described most of her teachers as being responsive especially her AP teacher who she said is "techy". But it's been silent from her elective teachers. 

The district said CPS teachers are required to respond to emails and Schoology messages within 24 hours.

After checking on assignments and her AP psychology calendar, she normally chills watching TV and YouTube videos until the evening when she feels the most productive. "I prefer to do it later on," Scott said of her homework. "It's better for me."

As someone with access to technology and the internet, she sees this as an experience that will prepare her for the freedom from oversight that college brings.

11:20 a.m. – 'I'm afraid coronavirus is gonna get all over the street'

From left: Haddasha Revely-Curtin, 12, Christy Revely-Curtin, 13, Zionnah Revely-Curtin, 7, and Rose Curtin, spot a neighborhood on Columbia Street, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Newport Ky.
Credit Kareem Elgazzar / Cincinnati Enquirer

Haddasha Revely-Curtin, the middle of three adopted girls growing up together in Newport, has confronted heightened anxiety.

At about 11:20 a.m., the 12-year-old settled in on mom Rose Curtin's bed for a history lesson, an iPad and blue pencil at the ready atop her blue lap desk. This is part of the family's routine, with Curtin serving as an impromptu educator.

Haddasha listened as Curtin read aloud about ancient Roman culture, her reading punctuated by the occasional flip of a page from the packet sent home by Haddasha’s school, Newport Intermediate.

Curtin, an editor for an academic journal and, until it closed, a part-timer at a local yarn shop, adopted Haddasha in 2010. Curtin said she's encouraged Haddasha to read more and plans to soon buy some books, but the previous weeks have been difficult.

"We have to do kind of a triage," Curtin said. "You do this much, and it's not going to be everything."

At one point during Thursday's lesson, Haddasha's voice rose as she pleaded with Curtin to skip a section on gladiators' enslavement.

"I know, I know, OK, listen," Curtin said. "Haddasha, I know you don't do stuff about slavery so we can skip the parts about slavery if you need to, OK?"

A few minutes later, Haddasha started skimming the packet for answers.

Reading on her own has been Haddasha's biggest challenge while out of school. The virus has sapped not just hospital systems and economies but Haddasha's capacity for concentration.

"I'm really scared right now about the coronavirus," Haddasha said, and particularly for her second adoptive mother, who is Curtin's former partner, and her birth family.

Haddasha's second adoptive mother, Alicia Revely, lives in the neighboring city of Covington. With health guidelines, it's unclear when Haddasha will see her next.

When asked to further describe her worries regarding Revely, Haddasha said, "Um, that she probably won't make it. She won't make it. Like, I'm just afraid that the coronavirus is gonna get all over the street in Covington and Cincinnati … and I don't know what to do.'

Noon – 'I want them to keep a joyous outlook about learning'

Tommy Milleneli, 6, peers over the edge of a book during a video conference call, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood. About a dozen of his mother's colleagues get together and rotate teaching their kids a lesson from a range of subjects.
Credit Kareem Elgazzar

 

It was a few minutes after lunch time and the Minellis had already ticked off half their to do list.

Princeton High School French teacher Emily and her husband Mark spend their weekdays switching between their full-time responsibilities as parents and workers plus his studies in graduate school. They're also taking on the tall order of being stand-in teachers for their 3- and 6-year-old kids.

"It's really hard to fit it into the day when he's trying to work and I'm trying to work," Emily said. "We don't want to ignore the kids when we're trying to do that, but we also need to focus on our work."

Before noon, she had already built online content for her students, graded their schoolwork and taught literacy through the video conferencing tool Zoom to a group of her colleagues' kids.

Throughout the week, about a dozen of Emily’s colleagues get together and rotate teaching their kids a lesson from a range of subjects. Last Thursday it was her turn to present an attention-grabbing reading of Creepy Pair of Underwear.

As the 34-year-old Emily held the book, her oldest son, Nico, sat in a kitchen chair, his small fingers dancing all around the large picture book, almost as a test of his virtual classmates' attention.

"Nico, they can't see the book, son," Emily said as she broke out of her curious reading tone. "Sit right there."

She said her family has planned out every hour of their school day but are trying to be flexible with their sons.

In the afternoons, the parents dedicate 30 minutes to Nico completing his Cincinnati Public Schools enrichment packets. They're trying to walk a fine line of keeping his mind sharp while also letting his creativity run wild in their front yard.

"What I'm trying to show them is learning is still fun, and just because we're doing it in a different place doesn't mean that it's not a priority," she said. "I just want them to keep a joyous outlook about learning. So however, we have to do that, that's what my goal really is."

She acknowledged the privilege her Northside family has since the parents studied education or literacy in postsecondary school.

"Go easy on yourself," Emily said as advice to other parents. "Teachers go to school for a long time to be teachers. No one would expect someone to walk into a courtroom and be a lawyer."

Disclosure: Emily Minelli was Ambriehl Crutchfield’s high school french teacher.

1 p.m. – 'I need help'

Tene Ba, 13, a seventh-grade student at Winton Woods Middle School, reviews his English lessons, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Forest Park, Ohio. Tene was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but spent five years in Mauritania where he learned French as his first language. An English Language Learner, Ba faces barriers trying to keep up with daily assignments.
Credit Kareem Elgazzar / Cincinnati Enquirer

Winton Woods Middle School seventh grader Tene Ba just returned to his Forest Park home after spending around 10 minutes playing Fortnite outside.

After his brief break, he reached for his computer to complete science homework using Google Slides.

Distance learning hasn't been ideal.

Thirteen-year-old Tene was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but spent five years in Mauritania, Africa, where he learned French as his first language.

As an English Language Learner, he faces barriers trying to keep up with daily homework assignments, such as not having someone in his household who can guide him with demanding work or who can help him problem-solve when he runs into issues online.

"I'm really struggling with this," Tene said. "I need help."

A Winton Woods school official said teachers are responsible for keeping in regular contact with students and families, while also monitoring and supporting the academic progress of students.

But when Tene tries to communicate his troubles to teachers through email or Google Meet, he said they try to solve a given problem without understanding his problem.

Learning at home has left him feeling uncomfortable about his slipping grades. He’s eager to return to face-to-face learning in a classroom.

"It would make me feel happy," Tene said. "I'll get my grades up."

2:40 p.m. – 'He'd be able to focus more with his own computer'

Sinaca Wagoner, Sr. and Renee Oliver help their son Sinaca Wagoner, Jr. 7, with his school work in their apartment in Lower Price Hill on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Sinaca Jr. is in the second grade at Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy.
Credit Meg Vogel / Cincinnati Enquirer

"What does the frog eat?" asked Renee Oliver, whose second grade son stood next to her. "Do it eat flowers? Flies?"

"Flies!" said 7-year-old Sinaca Wagoner Jr.

The exchange marked the start of another reading lesson, which was sent home by Sinaca’s charter school, Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in the West End. Sinaca and every student in the school are considered economically disadvantaged by the Ohio Department of Education.

At first, Sinaca offered to read, but then turned to his mother for help. They stood together at a small table near the kitchen. She read about a green frog, its eating and jumping habits.

The day had already been busy before this. Sinaca’s father drove his son, partner Oliver and their 5-year-old daughter, Keylah, all over Northern Kentucky in search of a laptop for the boy.

They tried multiple Walmarts and a Target, zigzagging from city to city. But all the devices in their price range, under $200, were sold out, even though an employee had earlier assured them otherwise by phone. Oliver fretted over the wasted gasoline.

The search for a laptop was in its third week and had been "the only thing stressing me out" amid the crisis, Oliver said.

While some districts provided Chromebook laptops to all families, Sinaca has relied on his mother's phone for online reading lessons. Sometimes while reading, he is interrupted by calls tied to Oliver's work cleaning apartments.

"Sinaca would be able to focus more" if he had access to a computer like he did in school, Oliver said.

After learning about the frog, Sinaca read on his own. He struggled with the word "picture," but his father, who had taken over reading duty from Oliver, mimed taking his son's photograph.

"Picture!" Sinaca said.

After they finished the story, Sinaca Wagoner Sr. reached for a new one.

His son shook his head and tried to flee into the kitchen.

"That's too much reading," he said.

"It's OK," the senior Wagoner said. "It makes your brain stronger."

The younger Sinaca trudged back to his father, who held his son’s hand to help him trace the words as he progressed down the page.

5:10 p.m. – 'Her goal is to have nothing but A's'

Sisters Destiny Taylor, 12, and Curiah Simpson, 18, work on their school work at the dining room table in their home in North College Hill on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Credit Meg Vogel / Cincinnati Enquirer

Curiah Simpson, cracked iPhone in hand, drew a simple graph on a sheet of notebook paper.

The high school senior had agreed to help her fifth-grade cousin with math. Simpson glanced at photos of worksheets on her phone sent by her cousin.

Simpson, 18, didn't say much to her family sitting around her at their dining room table as she marked points on the graph and plotted their positions.

"I love math," Simpson said. "I just struggle with English."

The table serves as the new classroom for Simpson and her younger siblings, Destiny Taylor, 12, and R Francis Akorli, 3. R's counting and coloring worksheets rested on the table near Simpson's unfinished English homework.

As her family chatted and worked around her, Simpson focused on her cousin’s math assignment.

Due to a learning disability, Simpson qualifies for one-on-one guidance for English lessons. 

Normally the specialist reads aloud to Simpson in English class, then together they read a text a second time before moving on to questions.

"That helps me understand by making the words clearer," Simpson said. "Because I sometimes don't know how to pronounce a word and then it messes up … what I'm trying to think about."

But since the closure, her intervention specialist at her Diamond Oaks school, which is within the Great Oaks career and technical education district, has yet to contact her, she said.

A meeting with Diamond Oaks officials to discuss Simpson's disability and her ongoing learning plan is set for Wednesday. Her Diamond Oaks teacher has also held multiple video chats each week with the teen.

Jon Weidlich, a Great Oaks spokesperson, declined to discuss Simpson specifically, citing privacy laws.

But he said in a statement, "Great Oaks instructors continue to support each student and meet their needs during this unprecedented time."

Reva Cosby, the Mount Healthy superintendent, acknowledged the difficulty of providing special education services during the closure, but the district is "trying our darndest" to stay in contact and provide needed support for students with disabilities.

"There will be some things we can't do," Cosby said. "...If (we) can’t get it done we understand a child may be eligible for compensatory education, and that’s what we'll do."

It's a common problem.

Lakota Local Schools Superintendent Matt Miller said parents and educators are frustrated by the necessary shift to new methods to teach students who qualify for special education services.

"We're trying to build that out," Miller said. "It's just not as fast as what we want."

Before helping her cousin with math, Simpson pulled up her own grades.

"Her goal is to have nothing but A's," said her mother, Lakresha Alexander. "She wants to be perfect all the time."

She's nearly met her goal: all A's and one B, in English.