CINCINNATI — For Dr. Christine Gibson, talking about her students at the Roll Hill School in East Westwood is like talking about her own children.
“I feel like they’re my babies,” Gibson said. “I spend most of my time during the day with them. All day, five days a week.”
But the third-grade teacher and intervention specialist said complications brought on by COVID-19 and social distancing requirements have disrupted the bond between her and a few of her beloved students.
Once the pandemic forced the school to close and transition to remote learning, some of Gibson’s students fell off the grid.
“My caseload was about 16 children,” Gibson said, referring to the children she saw daily. “Within those 16, I was able to keep in contact with probably 12.”
Lindsey Wittich, a teacher at Riverview East Academy in Columbia-Tusculum, said the pandemic also made it harder for her and her fellow educators to stay in touch with their students who come from low-income families. Attendance in their virtual classrooms became sparse.
“I would say maybe, at Riverview anyway, 25% or so of our students signed on daily,” Wittich said. “There was always, you know, the stragglers who would come once a week and check in.”
A number of educators WCPO spoke with said some children they work with in underprivileged households and communities have gone unaccounted for since the pivot to virtual classrooms.
Educators attribute the problem to a variety of causes but said the primary issue is that children in low-income homes frequently lack essential technology such as Wi-Fi, phones and computers to participate in remote learning.
“I would say in the younger grades (approximately from Kindergarten to sixth grade), 75% of our students didn’t have internet access, didn’t have computers,” Wittich said. “Or they had large families, so they had one computer to share with eight kids.”
Similarly, Gibson believes less than half of the student population at Roll Hill had access to devices and internet connections that were needed to partake in remote learning once Cincinnati schools migrated educational activities online.
“Everybody don't have a device,” Gibson said. “Everyone doesn't have a tablet, or cell phone, Wi-Fi and a home.”
She went on to say that the families she works with frequently change their phone numbers and service providers as well, making it even harder for her to get in contact with them.
“If they don't have Wi-Fi, they can't do anything,” LaMarqué D. Ward Sr. said, speaking of the children he frequently works with as a life coach through his organization, Dream Builders University, and his volunteer work at schools like Ethel M. Taylor Academy, Western Hills High School and the John P. Park School.
He recognizes the parents’ limitations as well, saying, “what if the parent doesn't have an unlimited plan? So, you know, it was just a hard deal.”
Gibson said many of her students’ parents were essential workers, meaning that despite their concern for their children’s education, their attention and time were consumed with continuing to financially support their families.
Their ability to actively engage in supporting their children’s education and making sure kids could join classes remotely was more complicated than that of other parents who could work from home or lost their jobs altogether. Although she is disappointed and concerned that she has not been able to see some of her students, Gibson said she has compassion for the parents who are being stretched thin to meet their most essential responsibilities.
“Everybody's priorities are different depending on everybody's reality,” Gibson said. “I don't want to say education isn’t important. But sometimes when you're in a situation where you have to prioritize things, education may have to step separate to make sure that you're taking care of your household, your livelihood first.”
The educators further explained that low-income children have frequently had to stay with other relatives, making it even harder to track them down.
They also said younger children are considerably less likely to have devices than older, high school-aged students to learn remotely. Wittich noted that, in households with multiple children, older siblings who are nearing graduation may have their educational needs prioritized over children still in their early years of schooling.
“I want to make sure that my first-grader gets their work, too, because their stuff is just as important,” Wittich said.
Educators have been going to great lengths to reach their underprivileged students who have drifted out of the matrix throughout the pandemic.
On top of frequently calling, texting, emailing and making house visits, teachers have also been reaching out to relatives of students who might give them information about students’ whereabouts.
Wittich said that at Riverview, educators have sometimes had to resort to contacting police, resource officers and administrators in the school district to get hold of children who have been particularly hard to reach.
Gibson said she has seen her colleagues pass through COVID testing sites and food drop-offs in the hopes of spotting students.
“It was a holistic approach,” Gibson said. “The teachers wanted to know that the children were actually safe.”
Wittich said that because Riverview is a relatively small school with a tight-knit community, its staff has been able to reconnect with virtually all of their students. However, Gibson is afraid she might not see some of her students again because of prolonged disruptions that undermine their education, or because some parents may opt for remote learning indefinitely.
The educators told us that while classrooms pose challenges for their students who are predominantly active learners and are easily distracted, they are doing their best to prepare for the school year in a way that will optimize protections for students’ mental and emotional health.
“That's a universal thing,” Ward said. “Now as I talk to school districts even not just inside Cincinnati but across the nation. Everybody is focusing on making sure that when the kids come back there, one, we have a great trauma plan and will be able to support the kids.”
Wittich said she will also be taking extra steps to make sure her students are well trained on their devices and online platforms to avoid hiccups in at-home learning.
On days when kids will be physically present at Riverview, she will also give her students hands-on work and small-group activities to ensure kids are getting an adequate amount of attention. Continuing to hand out supplies throughout the year is also part of her game plan.
“With the close-knit community that we have, I'm more than willing to go drop anything off at a student's house to make sure that that is one burden that can be lifted off of those parents,” Wittich said.
Gibson said that having visceral, meaningful conversations with her fellow educators and the children about what they have been experiencing in these intense, unprecedented times will be crucial to reintegrating into the upcoming school year.
She is less concerned with making sure that her estranged students are caught up on their school work and is more concerned with making her kids feel whole and nurtured.
“A lot of restorative practices are going to have to happen. A lot of people are so concerned -- which I am, too -- about the academic piece about it,” Gibson said. But she counters by saying that children are multi-faceted and have different needs.
“You got the academic side, you got the social-emotional well being – that all makes the whole child.
“Once you can deal with the child's social-emotional well-being, then the learning begins.”