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The Great Divide

One in five Boston public school children may be virtual dropouts

Technical, language challenges keep students from continuing school online

The first laptop computer that Jose Escobar was given did not work. He struggled to get a replacement.
The first laptop computer that Jose Escobar was given did not work. He struggled to get a replacement.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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At least 10,000 Boston public school students do not register as having logged in to class this month, suggesting they could be virtual dropouts whose formal education stopped two months ago when schools shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

City figures show that more than 20 percent of the district’s students have not logged on to any of the main academic platforms since at least May 4, meaning thousands have likely not attended online classes or picked up any homework assignments.

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The data is consistent with earlier figures showing around 22 percent of students had never logged in to Google Classroom. That includes fully one quarter of the school system’s Black and Latino students as well as 21 percent of white students.

School district leaders say the login data doesn’t capture the full picture since a small handful of schools are using separate Internet domains not tracked by the district and an unknown number of students are learning offline.

But officials concede that the data is troubling and that many of the missing students come from families that have borne the brunt of the pandemic — both economically and health-wise — and have found it especially hard to find time for school. Brighton High School sophomore Jose Escobar, who has not attended any online classes yet, said that everyone in his home has lost their job or most of their work hours, leaving them unable to afford phone service, including Escobar’s smartphone.

And he doesn’t have a working computer, either. The teen’s months-long quest to get a free Chromebook from the district has been stymied by his own limited English skills and inexperience navigating bureaucratic processes in this country.

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“I need those classes to improve my English,” Escobar said, speaking in Spanish. “They’ll probably make me repeat 10th grade.” (The district will not “hold back” any students because of missed work this spring, but the news has yet to reach Escobar.)

Many, but not all, of the virtual dropouts are English learners, who make up nearly a third of the district’s enrollment. Others might be homeless, unable to get Internet access, or overwhelmed by their families’ dire health or financial needs, or may have just lost motivation without the normal structure of school.

The alarming absenteeism numbers have led Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell to request detailed information about student attendance and assignment completion broken down by school; she also wants all available data on the unmet technological needs of the city’s school children.

“I want more data from the district so we know which students and families are getting services and which are not,” she said. “It’s so we can focus on helping those students who are off the grid."

The pandemic has exposed just how much Boston’s 50,000 public school students depend on in-person supports to keep them on track. Half of students are logging into online class or submitting assignments online on a typical day. Teachers are also taking “attendance” based on their — sometimes offline — interactions with students, and report higher engagement: around 84 percent each day. (Pre-pandemic annual attendance rates were around 92 percent, including for English learners.)

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Scores of families have needed basic help with everything from using school-issued computers to tracking down the Electronic Benefit Transfer Cards that were mailed to students to cover the cost of lunch. It hasn’t always been easy to get that help.

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy,” said Judenie Dabel, the youth coordinator at the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing in Boston. “This crisis has shown that the system isn’t built for immigrants and other students who have to advocate for themselves and their parents.”

It has also presented an opportunity, some say, for school districts and other governmental institutions to better serve students and families.

“One of my hopes is that this whole crisis brings about a paradigm shift,” said Paul Reville, founder of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Schools should move away from acting as an impersonal bureaucracy with a “one-size-fits-all approach” and toward a “more individualized, customized approach.” That includes making it easier for students and families who don’t speak or read English well or don’t use computers regularly to get help.

Already, the district has made one such change: It set up an information hot line, available in 10 languages, that families can call with any questions. It’s a step advocates have praised but said was long overdue.

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By most accounts, the district aggressively and thoughtfully tackled students’ technology needs in the days after schools closed. Boston has distributed more than 31,000 Chromebooks and more than 2,600 Wi-Fi hot spots to students so far. Still, it’s not clear how many students still need access to computers and the Internet, or the extent to which missing technology contributes to the sizable number of students who are chronically absent from online learning. The district still has 116 outstanding requests for Chromebooks.

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Basic technology needs have certainly kept Escobar offline.

On March 16, the last day of in-person classes at Brighton High, he picked up a school-issued Chromebook. But when he got it home to his Brighton apartment, the computer wouldn’t turn on.

A couple days later, Escobar says, he reached out to his English-as-a-second-language teacher, Ramon Trinidad, asking what to do. Trinidad is one of the only teachers Escobar remembers by name. The teacher’s class is dynamic, Escobar says, and Trinidad, an immigrant himself, speaks Spanish.

Before Escobar’s smartphone stopped working, Trinidad sent the teen instructions in Spanish for filling out an online form to request a new computer (instructions which, for a few days at least, were available only in English, according to Trinidad). Escobar says he filled out the form several times.

The district received one e-mail from Escobar on April 16, according to a spokeswoman, who added that officials responded a week later with a link to make an appointment to receive a replacement computer. Escobar said he never received this message.

It’s possible, Escobar acknowledged, that he didn’t submit the forms properly. “I never used a computer before last year,” he said. “We never had the resources to buy one.”

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He spoke to a reporter while sitting in the small parking lot behind the two-decker apartment building where he shares a flat with five relatives. A pile of bicycles — the family’s main mode of transportation to the restaurant jobs they once had in Harvard Square — rested under the stairwell.

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The district has largely left it up to schools to track down missing students. District guidance asks teachers and staff to connect students they are concerned about to school-based problem-solving teams. If a teacher is very worried about a student’s well-being, they’re supposed to notify central office to dispatch a social worker to the student’s home.

There’s a sizable gap between the number of students who teachers are marking “present" each day for engaging in “some or all remote learning opportunities” — an average of 84 percent — and the smaller number of students who have logged in to Google Classroom even once.

Some of the difference can be explained by a set of schools whose online activity isn’t tracked by the district, according to a spokesman. Younger students and those with special needs are also more likely to do offline work. (Students with disabilities are logging in less frequently than any other group of students.)

Yet Superintendent Brenda Cassellius recently asked some principals to explain the disparity.

For many teachers and students, particularly English learners, the pandemic has underscored the key role that individual teachers play in helping kids get things done. When those relationships diminish — or disappear — tasks like registering for school or getting a laptop become more complicated.

Elizabeth Reynolds Lupo, a teacher at the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, is intimately familiar with students who are MIA from online learning, having devoted a lot of the last two months to trying to reengage them. She’s crisscrossed Boston countless times, even driving as far as Lowell one day to help a student obtain a laptop.

On a recent Thursday morning, Lupo drove around Dorchester delivering manila envelopes with handwritten notes, books, and activities to dozens of students who haven’t been coming to virtual classes. Most of the families didn’t come to the door and texted Lupo to leave the materials outside.

Lupo has helped families with every manner of technical roadblock, including getting an Internet hot spot and figuring out how to charge their computers. She’s part of a team at the Russell tasked with supporting absentee students. All of the city’s schools have teams like this, but they’re not required to visit families in their homes or spend as much time as Lupo and her colleagues have done.

Lupo eventually learned that one Cape Verdean student’s unexplained absences from virtual learning were because the family relied on the mother’s smartphone as a hot spot for Internet access. By the last few days of the month, they were always out of data.

Her efforts have been complicated by the fact that many families moved pre-pandemic without officially notifying the district — deterred by the cumbersome requirement to go in person and supply two proofs of residency.

At least 20 families at the Russell Elementary School have outdated mailing addresses in the centralized database, said Lupo. She has been texting them instructions for changing their addresses.

The Boston school system addressed this problem recently by allowing families to change their addresses over the phone. When schools reopen, the district plans to continue to provide over-the-phone services “as much as possible,” according to a spokesman.

The district should also eliminate the requirement for two documents proving a student’s address, said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. In a city like Boston, where housing costs have skyrocketed and many families are forced to share apartments with other families, requiring those documents shows the district’s central office doesn’t “understand what poor people have to go through on a regular basis to survive,” she said.

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After several weeks went by with no laptop delivered to Escobar, his teacher, Ramon Trinidad, intervened more directly. He tried to change the family’s address on file with the schools, so the new computer would be delivered to the right place, only to learn how very hard that can be for a family lacking documents proving residency.

Finally, when a Globe reporter asked district officials about Escobar’s situation last week, they speedily provided a new laptop for Trinidad to take to Escobar.

Now that he has a working computer, Escobar is excited to continue learning — both to improve his English skills and because he believes it’s his duty.

“It’s my obligation as a student to do my work,” he said.

Still, Escobar worries that his progress with English has stagnated. Everyone he lives with speaks Spanish, and the teen hasn’t practiced his English since leaving school in March. He’s keenly aware that many of his classmates have been logging on for at least some virtual learning. “I hope I can catch up,” he said.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.