As pandemic drags on, North Bay student's struggle with distance learning worsens

"He didn't use to be this way. He used to put more effort, but now something is off."
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- You don't have to tell Elizabeth Rodriguez how tough distance learning has been on students. She sees it in her son every day.

"His grades have dropped," said Rodriguez as she watches her son sit on the kitchen table and stare unenthusiastically at his laptop for the start of his math class over Zoom.

"He didn't use to be this way. He used to put more effort, but now something is off," adds Rodriguez.

Her son, Eduardo Mendoza, is an 8th grader at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael.

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Despite the best efforts of his teacher to keep kids engaged, Mendoza looks blankly at the screen as class time ticks by.

"There is not much to do but work," he explains about his lack of interest. Mendoza admits he gets distracted by his cellphone and videogames.

Unlike many students who have been doing distance learning with their parents nearby, Mendoza must go at it with little oversight.

His parents are both front-line workers, so they leave their home in the Canal area of San Rafael every day to go to work. Eduardo and his sister Neady Mendoza stay home alone to navigate school online.

"To not have parents at home to help you, to guide you or look over you while you are doing your work makes it really hard. The students have to do it all themselves," said Air Gallegos, director of education and careers at Canal Alliance.

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The nonprofit offers social services to people in the Canal area, most of whom are Latinos. A survey done in June of 2020 found that only 43% of families in the Canal had a computer at home, compared to 90% for the rest of Marin.

Access to high-speed internet is also a challenge. Many families rely mostly on their cellphones to get online.
This digital divide was already putting kids in this area behind, but COVID-19 has deepened the divide.

"Unfortunately, we've seen like a 40% increase in students who are receiving Ds and Fs, who are struggling with distance learning and online formats," said Gallegos.

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Canal Alliance is trying to help. It runs an after-school program that offers tutoring and homework help for students. Eduardo and Neady are both enrolled, but the benefit they get from it depends a lot on their personality.

While Eduardo is struggling, Neady is flourishing.

"School is going pretty well. I try to make the best of it. One of my biggest motivations right now is college. Colleges are looking at my grades," said Neady, a senior at San Rafael High School.

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She sees her brother struggle.

"I feel like my brother and me, we are polar opposites. For him, it is hard to do school online. Whatever break they have, he goes to play videogames. That is the only time he has to interact with other kids," explains Neady.

Currently, there are 55 learning hubs in Marin County to assist kids during online learning. They are run by schools, nonprofits or even child care center. But not everyone that needs it is enrolled.

According to Marin Promise Partnership, only 17% of students living in poverty in Marin County are attending a learning hub, like the one run by Bridge the Gap College Prep in Marin City. It helps students from Tamalpais High School.

"The first weeks of school we saw a really significant drop in grades. A lot of Ds and Fs and students getting incompletes," said Andy Robles, High School and College Success director.

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Once students started attending a learning hub, grades improved.

The learning hub has several classrooms or pods where students have stable broadband internet to log onto their classes. There is a counselor with them to track their schoolwork or help them with technical issues.

"If a student has a missing assignment, we ask how can we make it up. If they have too many missing assignments, we ask the teachers to figure out what we can do to help the student get a passing grade," said Robles.

He hopes to keep operating the learning hub even after schools return to in-person instruction since some families may opt to stay with distance learning or schools may implement hybrid models where students only go to campus a few days a week.

That's something Eduardo's father is looking forward to.

"He himself has said he wasn't to be there with his teachers or wants to be there with his friends. Maybe that's the motivation he needs to keep moving forward," said Severo Mendoza.


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