MENDOCINO Co., 8/27/21 — The adverse impacts of distance learning were not felt evenly among K-12 students in Mendocino County, and while some self motivated students were able to work ahead and take courses not usually available at local schools, many were left behind as a result of inadequate broadband infrastructure. Grades suffered, on the whole. Meanwhile, reports of child abuse in Mendocino County dropped by more than 20 percent, largely attributed to reduced face-to-face interaction between students and teachers. That comes from a civil grand jury report titled “Mendocino County’s Distance Learning: Problems and Productive Aspects,” released July 26.
The grand jury spent just over three months, from October, 2020, to January, 2021, interviewing educators and officials with the Mendocino County Office of Education (MCOE). They also cited local news coverage, and data on broadband availability and deficiencies from the Center for Rural Innovation. Their investigative focus was on the months from March 2020 when the schools closed down until December — and so the report does not address anything that’s happened so far in 2021 as a result. The jury identified a series of findings and recommendations, none of which are enforceable, but the Mendocino County Board of Education is required by state law to respond in writing by Oct. 24.
A “digital divide” impacts each community in Mendocino County differently
The area around Fort Bragg seems to have pretty good internet access, according to the grand jury, and there are parts of Fort Bragg and Point Arena with good service as well. However, Mendocino, Anderson Valley and Covelo are underserved. Districts have been able to address this by providing wireless hotspots directly to students in some cases, but that solution works better in some parts of the county than others. And there’s only so much the school districts can do to address broader issues around rural internet access in underserved areas without major outside investments in telecommunications infrastructure.
“Even when internet service was available, students and teachers often encountered connection latency delays, insufficient bandwidth and a few power outages,” jurors wrote.
Rates of academic failure doubled for Mendocino County students during distance learning
Even for students who had access to all the required resources for distance learning to work, it didn’t work for everybody. The grand jury reports that local educators estimated a “failure rate” of 25 percent before the pandemic, but it grew to an estimated 50% during distance learning. Mendocino County students who have endured quarantine-era education are likely to require remedial courses in core subjects in order to catch up with national standards — and many have foregone elective courses altogether.
There were upsides, though, and some of them are here to stay
Video conferencing wasn’t a big part of rural life in 2019, but the technologies used by students, teachers and parents during the pandemic are likely to have a lasting impact on education in Mendocino County. It’s a useful tool for saving time, money and fuel on face-to-face interactions that used to require travel. This will be particularly useful for parent-teacher conferences and remote instruction when students are sick and otherwise unable to attend class. It will also allow students to access courses not taught by teachers in their local school system, and for some exceptional, self-motivated students (with access to resources), distance learning can also provide an opportunity to work ahead of their peers.
Child abuse probably didn’t stop, but it did stop getting reported in a lot of cases
There were 2,407 cases of child maltreatment reported in the county in 2018, and 2,409 in 2019. Those totals are almost identical — despite significant variation from month to month. But last year the total number of cases reported dropped by more than 400 — or 20.4 percent. And this happened during last year’s extended periods of lockdown and quarantine, meaning that families were likely under heightened stress and confined to their homes. It is unlikely that abusive behavior stalled under those circumstances, but teachers were a little less able to identify and report symptoms of abuse by observing their students only through online video conferencing.
Findings (glossary included in report):
- F1. Students who failed to master core academic subjects or benefit from electives will require remedial classes to bring them up to their class level because of the year lost from the effects of DL.
- F2. Maltreatment of children has been underreported during COVID. Data supplied by HHSACPS revealed a sharp decrease in reported cases of abuse due to educators having reduced visibility of the subtle signs of abuse or neglect, restrictions on home visits and interaction with students.
- F3. During DL travel time and transportation costs were reduced for meetings among colleagues from distant school districts improving cross communication and sharing of ideas and approaches. Additionally. parents could more readily attend conferences with teachers using teleconferencing.
- F4. Some students accessed inappropriate content due to deficient filters monitoring internet searches and websites on computers used by students at home.
- F5. DL enables students who might otherwise be unable to attend school the ability to continue studies with their teacher and classmates.
- F6. Asynchronous DL enables students who are self-motivated and can study independently to advance at their own pace. For example, using tools like Khan Academy to provide professional instruction of subjects.
- F7. California’s E-rate and CTF grant programs provide discounted broadband services for students which otherwise might not have been available.
Recommendations (glossary included in report):
The GJ Recommends that:
- R1. MCOE guide all schools in the County to develop and implement action plans to assess and remediate failed academic subjects. (F1)
- R2. MCOE develop or obtain interactive online training available 24/7 to mandated reporters of child maltreatment and expand training to include depression, cyberbullying, suicidal warning signs and sex trafficking. (F2, F3)
- R3. MCOE allow mandated reporters to train on their own schedules which would provide flexibility of scheduling and cost savings. Interactive training would track attendance and comprehension as verified by online testing and provide certification upon successful completion. (F2, F3)
- R4. MCOE prepare recommendations for schools to implement internet search filters to identify and block searches of inappropriate content. This may include guidance for parents in how to filter online searches by students during remote learning. (F4)
- R5. MCOE encourage all Districts to continue use of video conferencing among peer educators to collaborate and develop best practices and provide needed funding. (F3)
- R6. MCOE encourage all school districts provide technologies to permit remote instruction of students due to illness or other conditions. (F3, F5)
- R7. MCOE develop a catalogue with funding and accreditation mechanisms of third party or internally developed learning materials for specialized or core subjects. This would facilitate students who can study and advance at their own pace. (F6)
- R8. MCOE work with all school districts to explore if they are eligible for E-Rate or CTF grants to provide broadband and telecommunications services to their underserved students. (F7)