CINCINNATI — For Carol Fiel of Oakley, watching her children suffer through shifts from in-person to remote and blended learning has been a painful experience. Five of her six children go to Cincinnati Public Schools.
“It's been extraordinarily difficult for the older ones in particular because they didn't have much screen time when they were growing up,” Fiel said.
The full-time mother said some of her children even get physically sick from being online for so long. Her son, who attends Spencer High School, vomits and gets migraines from being online all day.
Her daughter, a seventh grader at Walnut Hills High School, used to be a model student with a strong personality. Now she is failing miserably; these days she takes medication and goes to therapy to manage her depression.
“I mean it really hurts a mother's heart to see,” Fiel said. “They lose all hope, you know?”
Despite the risks of contracting COVID-19, Fiel said she would have kept her children in school five days a week and resents CPS for not providing parents stronger options over their children's learning environments.
“It's just such a struggle,” Fiel said.
But Rian Maxie, a 911 operator who lives in Green Township, has had a very different experience. Her 5-year-old daughter has been thriving while remotely attending kindergarten at Cheviot Elementary.
“I absolutely hate sometimes that my child's first experience with school, with kindergarten, is on a laptop sitting in a daycare center or sitting in our home on the days that I'm off,” Maxie said. “[B]ut, at the same time, they've made it fun. She looks forward to it. She is enjoying it and she's learning.”
Maxie said her daughter’s reading skills have improved significantly since the start of the school year. She also said her daughter is better organized and is making friends. Like Fiel, Maxie is comfortable with having her child go back to in-person learning five days a week if CPS eventually comes to that decision. Maxie spoke very highly of her daughter’s teachers.
“Their love of learning, their love of teaching is coming through at least to this parent, like at least to me,” Maxie said. “I’m not just satisfied. I’m impressed.”
WCPO set out to explore if we could find strong ties to the quality of students’ experiences while attending CPS during the pandemic and the neighborhoods in which they lived. We wanted to see if we could unearth obvious indicators of the inequities children throughout Cincinnati face while obtaining their education that are directly influenced by their socioeconomic status and the immediate communities they call home.
“The experiences that families are having are varying, and some of it is very much dependent upon the household incomes,” said Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. “And I'm not saying that COVID is discriminatory to who catches it. But I am saying that the quality of health care and access to health care is different based on a family’s socioeconomics.”
This reality can have a ripple-down effect on children's ability to stay healthy and perform well in school, Sellers said. Furthermore, those class distinctions can be seen among families on the east and west sides of Cincinnati. Several areas on the East Side are populated by more affluent families that have better resources and are more likely to be working remotely, she said.
By contrast, Sellers said that the West Side, in addition to some of Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs, has a significant population of low-moderate income families. Parents in these families may be working in hospitality and service jobs that are public-facing and have been harder hit by COVID-19. They are also families that might not have a parent or guardian who can supervise children during at-home learning. Sellers also noted that disadvantaged areas have more multigenerational households in which older relatives are especially vulnerable to the virus.
However, through interviews with several CPS parents and local educators, we found that children’s academic performance, as well as their physical and mental health, could not reliably be predicted by their neighborhood, family size or income, or even whether they were enrolled in remote, in-person or blended learning. Rather, explanations behind the state of a child’s school performance and health were more easily identified by more subjective (and in some cases, inconspicuous) factors and particular circumstances.
In other words, parents acknowledged that their income and stability of their households had a significant factor in the quality of their children’s education. However, parents and educators said elements like children’s ages, learning styles, personalities, disabilities, having devoted attention and advocacy on their behalf, the ability to choose preferred learning environments, in addition to more generic socioeconomic indicators were more relevant in demonstrating why or why not children are succeeding in school during the pandemic.
Fiel said that recognizing the complexities of how privilege applies to students’ specific situations is important to understanding the problem. She noted that her children have languished while attending classes remotely. However, she also acknowledged that her family is supported by her husband’s secure income as a computer programmer. What’s more, Fiel can be present and fight for her children more easily than some other parents can. She listed questions that should be asked when evaluating children’s ability to receive a sound education at home during the pandemic:
“Do you have parents that are home for the children? Do you have, you know, the ability to be full time with your children?” Fiel also recognized the importance of providing children with enough comfort and space to effectively learn inside their homes.
“If I live in Hyde Park,” Fiel said, “but I'm missing any one of these things, then the quality exponentially declines.”
Addressing each child's educational needs
Chanel Stevens is a school-based mental health therapist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Stevens’ family lives on the border of Westwood and Western Hills. Her 12-year-old daughter, Najae, a seventh grader at Dater High School, has a processing delay and ADHD. Her disabilities require that she learn through an individual educational plan.
Stevens acknowledges the advantages she has in providing a stable home and learning environment for her daughter. She is secure in her career and has leveraged the strong relationship she has with school officials to advocate for her child’s educational needs. Although her husband was furloughed from a manufacturing job, both Stevens and her partner are essential workers who are actively providing for their family. Still, Stevens’ daughter struggled with CPS’ remote learning model because of her disability. Stevens shares Fiel’s disapproval of CPS’ decision to not give parents more options and agency over selecting their children’s learning environments.
“[T]he deficit came in the whole idea that we weren't allowed to choose as parents whether we wanted our child to be physically in a classroom or remote,” Stevens said. “I think that was the biggest mistake or the biggest disadvantage for us in this district compared to other districts and other opportunities that other parents that I know and am connected to had. [They] had that autonomy to make that choice that they felt was best for their child. And so that right out the gate was just like, that's not fair.”
Erin Carpenter lives in Mount Lookout with her husband and 7-year-old daughter, who attends Kilgour Elementary. Carpenter has more easily been able to account for her daughter’s needs and challenges during the pandemic not only because she has the means and necessary privileges, but also because her daughter’s struggle with learning during the pandemic is less severe.
Carpenter is a marketing communications consultant and had already been working virtually before the pandemic. Carpenter’s husband is a product marketer for a software company. Carpenter said that isolating for school has been hard for her second-grader, who is naturally a very social child.
As a solution, Carpenter put her child in a learning pod with a small group of other CPS children in the neighborhood. The pod was coordinated by Carpenter and seven other families who wanted to provide more support for the kids’ online learning while making it easier for parents to continue working. On days when Carpenter’s daughter goes to school remotely, she logs onto class through her devices at a host family’s house alongside 10 other children. The families who coordinated the pod pulled together resources to hire an educator to supervise the children and facilitate their online lessons.
Carpenter acknowledges that she and the other parents coordinating the pod are uniquely positioned to be able to afford it. She also said they are fortunate that someone in their community was willing to open up their home to make the pod possible.
“It's the only reason that I'm not in like a deep dark place as a parent right now," Carpenter said. "It’s because she's been able to have some semblance of normalcy this year.”
The one child in Fiel’s household who has experienced the greatest sense of normalcy this school year is her kindergartner, who attends the Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in the West End. The charter school has allowed its students to attend class in person throughout the entire pandemic. Fiel said her young son has been faring best out of all her children. Keeping her son attending in-person learning has been effective, as he does not work well with computers. She said he didn’t know the alphabet or numbers at the start of the school year. Now he loves reading and math and is full of energy. Fiel also credits CCPA for doing a good job of keeping children healthy and teaching them to closely follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Fiel is grateful to see her kindergarten student thrive as he has been able to take advantage of in-person learning. But it also deepens her frustration that her other children have been grappling with online learning while being denied the option of going to school in-person. She wishes all of her children could have physically stayed in class as her young son has. She also said CPS should have been more creative in coordinating viable options that could have allowed children to physically attend class while keeping them and their teachers safe.
To accommodate students who need in-person learning, Fiel said CPS could have explored tactics like installing partitions, restricting students’ movements, and rotating the times students spent in school buildings. She also pointed to the solution of letting educators teach remotely through video calls while their students would be supervised by other adults in classrooms. In her view, employing those ideas would have allowed children to access the kind of education they need while enabling the district to adhere to safety guidelines.
“We love our children. We don't want them to get hurt,” Fiel said. “[B]ut the world is full of danger and we can't, we can’t stop living.”
What the educators have to say
Riverside Academy, also a charter school, gave parents the option to choose in-person learning, online classes or a hybrid for their children. Principal Elizabeth Lucas said the K-8 school with over 200 students is mostly split halfway between Black and white children, and all of them are considered economically disadvantaged. Teacher Abby Kenner says that parents have learned how their children learn best by now.
Lucas said students are mostly performing as expected, and that they are seeing in-person and online students succeed in their respective lanes. Pivoting to online learning was a big challenge for some, and several did not have internet or were saddled with tech problems at the beginning of the year. However, accommodations have been made so that students can carry out their school work.
Speaking on a recent conversation she had with online students, Kenner said: “[T]hey told me that it was a really hard adjustment at first, but once they like got a routine and got a schedule, got a schedule down, they were able to really thrive in the online environment.”
Lindsay Wittich is a teacher at Riverview East Academy, a public school in Columbia-Tusculum. Like Kenner and the various parents WCPO spoke to, Wittich has noticed students have different learning styles and needs that determine whether they are better suited for in-person or online learning. Remote learning has been difficult for a number of her students; she has noticed some of them become sadder, quieter and less likely to turn on their camera. However, remote learning is where a few of her other students shine.
“We've had some kids who are flourishing online, who are doing great, and it's better for them,” Wittich said. “[T]hey really interact, they love doing their stuff independently, and they can work, you know, more at their own pace. So, yeah, each kid, you have to take with a grain of salt as to what's good for each kid.”
Tracey Carson, the public information officer for Mason City Schools, also noted how online learning can be more beneficial for certain students who are more introverted and reflective in their thinking.
“There are definitely are some students who may have been a little bit more hesitant to raise their hand and speak in a class, but it feels better to do it as a chat,” Carson said.
Since last spring, the Mason City Schools district has been offering parents the option of sending their children to school in-person or enrolling them in remote classes. Carson said 75% are learning in class five days a week while the remaining 25% are going to school from home. She said having to make accommodations for COVID-19 has forced school officials to rethink how they provide educational opportunities to their students in the long-term future.
“And so those are things moving forward post-pandemic that will be great learning opportunities for all of our teachers and learners, so that we make sure that we really are personalizing the experience,” Carson said.
Krista Clark, a University of Cincinnati professor and CPS parent living in Mount Washington, has picked up on how children being offered different options to pursue their learning has created an even more uneven playing field for children in the education system. She pointed out that for a time, affluent schools in areas like Mount Lookout, Hyde Park and Oakley have offered children remote options that were executed by the children’s own schools, rather than the separate, more generic remote learning model provided by the Cincinnati Digital Academy (CDA). She said that she and her children have had positive experiences working with CDA teachers. Still, switching to that platform is challenging because its course offerings and requirements do not directly align with those of the students’ native schools.
While remote learning from students’ current schools was only available at select locations, it is being discontinued as blended learning kicks in. Still, Clark observed that disadvantaged children who would benefit from having remote options at their current schools the most are being neglected.
“The argument has always been that the goal is for equitable education and that there are students that are being left out of the system that's currently in place," Clark said. "But they just created a different inequity.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Clark was an ardent supporter of CPS. However, over time she lost confidence in CPS’ decision making and questioned the motives of administrators. Clark takes issue with the structure of CPS. She said it isn’t fair or productive for a board of eight people to have so much power to tell thousands of parents, teachers and students how to manage their unique educational and instructional needs. She doesn’t feel listened to as a parent and challenges the data CPS has used to justify returning to in-person learning. She also takes issue with the fact that CPS has opted not to devise a more robust remote learning option. If she continues to be dissatisfied with how the district handles the pandemic, Clark may explore educational options for her children outside of CPS.
“We can't expect them to know the answers to everything," Clark said. "I don't expect them to know what every single school needs. But I do expect them to realize, there is no one size fits all…”
Deliberation over leaving Cincinnati Public Schools
Stevens shares Clark’s dissatisfaction and has opted not to enroll her two younger children into CPS schools. Stevens will keep her 12-year-old at Dater; she fears removing her child from the high school will be too disruptive to the seventh-grader’s education. The mother of three said she never thought she would take an alternative route for her children’s education, as both she and her husband are products of Cincinnati Public Schools.
“There's no right or wrong in this pandemic," Stevens said. "But what I really was hoping to see was options and those were not provided. And so therefore I feel like Cincinnati Public Schools got it wrong.”
However, parents like Maxie and Carpenter are less critical of CPS. They think the board is making the most of a complex and difficult situation.
“They're not going to make everybody happy, but I don't think that they're trying or have made any decisions that are putting anybody in danger, either,” Maxie said.
She described the work CPS board members have to do as a thankless job. She also acknowledged the great responsibility of serving the needs of teachers, parents, and students while getting school running as quickly as possible. To her, the CPS board is an easy target for frustrated parents who may be contributing to the problems they are facing with their children’s education. She also says she tends to hear complaints from parents who are not otherwise engaged with schools and are ill-informed.
“Everybody probably could have done something differently here, but I don't think, at least in my opinion, that the board has done anything so egregious that it would make me want to pull my child out of school,” Maxie said.
“You can't have a full suite of options without a full suite of resources,” Carpenter said. “[I]t's a big district of 35,000 students and each of those students has a household that has a different set of needs...Public school system was not set up to cater to 35,000 sets of needs and it shouldn't have to.”
Fiel is trying to get her children out of CPS, but the odds are bleak.
“I've been desperately calling around,” Fiel said. “All the places I've looked into aren't taking kids anymore.”
She said schools are full for the year, and that her children do not fit the admission requirements.
“They don't want to take failing kids, and it's all, it's just hellish," Fiel said. "I am normally a loyal person and would stick with it. But I feel like we've stuck with them long enough.
“I hope things are better by next year.”
A representative from Cincinnati Public Schools issued the following statement in response to the comments made by parents in this article:
"Cincinnati Public Schools is committed to providing the best education possible for all children in our district during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no substitute for face-to-face instruction, but our CPS staff has made accommodations to meet the needs of our students while learning remotely and during blended learning. The Cincinnati Digital Academy was another option for our families who preferred the distance learning model during the 2020-2021 academic year, returning to their home school next year.
The health and safety of our students and staff have been and will continue to be a top priority. Throughout the year-long pandemic, our school-based health centers have continued to offer medical, dental, vision and mental health care services for our students and their families.
Since June, when engaging our parents through numerous channels, including email and text surveys, parent focus groups and hearing of the public, there has been a fairly consistent 50/50 split, with some parents preferring distance learning and others preferring in-person learning.
We know this has been a stressful time but we will continue to educate our 35,000 students with the input from our students, staff, parents and community partners.
Cincinnati Public Schools
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.
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