Covid-19 Live Updates: Concerns Over Remote Learning Multiply for Disadvantaged Students

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Mya Janae, a fifth-grader, with the tablet she sometimes uses for distance learning in Covington, Wash.
Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

Disadvantaged students are much more likely than others to be engaged in remote schooling during the coronavirus pandemic, increasing the risk that less effective instruction will widen the achievement gap, according to the first comprehensive analysis of attendance patterns.

Using cellphone data to track movement to more than 100,000 schools, researchers at Columbia University found that classrooms that had closed were disproportionately composed of nonwhite students, as well as students with low math scores or limited English proficiency or who are poor enough to qualify for free meals.

About 58 percent of nonwhite students attend schools that rely heavily on remote learning, compared with 36 percent of white students. Remote learning is widely considered less successful than traditional classrooms, especially for younger children.

“Given the sheer magnitude of the students affected, this does not bode well,” said Zachary Parolin, the study’s lead author. “Inequality in learning outcomes is only more likely to grow.”

Others experts have warned that disadvantaged students often lack the support that remote learning requires, such as computer access, quiet study space and help from parents or tutors. The Columbia study shows how the students least equipped for virtual instruction are those most likely to have encountered it this year.

Consider the experience of Shereese Rhodes, a single mother in Kent, Wash., whose fifth grader, Mya Janae, has not returned to the classroom since the coronavirus closed her school in March.

Mya Janae, who had a long delay in learning to speak and suffers from impaired hearing, has never met the teachers on her screen, and her school-issued computers have not properly worked. Worried about lingering harm, Ms. Rhodes squeezed her budget to hire a tutor.

“She’s not designed for school like this,” Ms. Rhodes said. “There’s not time for her to ask questions. She has breakdowns and just cries about little things.”

While it remains unclear how much school closures will harm disadvantaged students, most experts are pessimistic.

NWEA, a nonprofit research group, warned in May that the spring school closures could cost students a third of their expected annual progress in reading and half of their expected progress in math. Data from Zearn, an online math program used by some schools, shows widening performance gaps, with progress among low-income students falling by 14 percent since January, even as it rose by 13 percent among high-income students.

Health care workers by a room where a Covid-19 patient needed to be put on a ventilator in Apple Valley, Calif., last week.
Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

The dark winter that American officials have warned about has arrived in Southern California.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, carols sung by members of the Los Angeles Opera have been replaced with a video by a street choir from Skid Row. So many patients are streaming into the hospital that gurneys have been placed in the gift shop, and the entire lobby is now a space to treat patients. The waiting room is a tent outside.

Health care workers at Providence St. Mary Medical Center are getting their first shots of a coronavirus vaccine to the sound of Christmas music. Yet the moment the needle leaves their arms, there is the next “code blue,” or the next FaceTime goodbye to arrange between a dying patient and a grieving family.

“Every day is scary,” said Lisa Thompson, an intensive care nurse at the hospital. “We can’t even keep up with the amount of patients coming into the hospital.”

In increasingly urgent tones this week, health officials and political leaders in Southern California have called on people to stay home for the holidays, desperately hoping to forestall another surge in infections, on top of the current crisis that came after Thanksgiving.

But so far very little has slowed the spread of the virus in the state, which became the first to reach two million recorded virus cases.

In Los Angeles County, a vast region whose population is roughly the size of Michigan’s, there are about 6,500 people hospitalized with Covid-19, a fourfold increase over the last month. The number of patients in intensive care units is close to 1,300, double what it was a month ago.

The county on Thursday reported 148 new deaths, the equivalent of about one every 10 minutes and its highest total during the pandemic, according to a New York Times database. Nearly every hospital has surged past its capacity.

But the availability of beds is not the most urgent concern. With so many employees falling sick or taking leave, hospitals are struggling to find enough workers.

Mindy Hickey, the quality director at St. Mary’s and a former nurse, has lately taken on shifts caring for patients in intensive care, on top of her administrative duties, sometimes working 23 hours in a day.

As the holiday season has collided with the height of the pandemic in the region, there is little joy for the health care workers on the front lines, who are bracing for the near certainty that things will only get worse.

“I can only imagine what is going to happen after Christmas and New Year’s if we don’t get the community educated on how to stay home and be safe,” said Ms. Thompson, the nurse at St. Mary’s.

Judging by what she sees in her community after another traumatizing day in the intensive care unit, she is not optimistic.

Stockbridge, Mass. Governors throughout New England urged people to make safe choices during the holiday season.
Credit…Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Lawmakers in Washington may be dueling over a stimulus bill, but governors across New England can all agree on one thing: Residents should reconsider their normal holiday gatherings.

“We know this about the virus — it doesn’t care who are you, where you are from, whether you are young or old, rich or poor, or a Democrat or Republican,” said Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts in a joint video with three other governors.

“It is a threat to all of us,” said Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont.

“No one wants Covid to be an uninvited guest during the holidays,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.

Governors Baker, Scott and Sununu — all Republicans — along with Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, a Democrat, drew on the region’s hallmark Yankee attitude to urge residents to hold out a little longer in order to “be able to celebrate together next year.”

“Look, we’re all New Englanders,” said Mr. Baker.

“We are tough,” said Mr. Scott.

“We are resilient,” said Ms. Mills.

“Let’s prove it now more than ever,” Mr. Sununu said.

Coronavirus cases in the region have been largely trending downward since they hit an all-time high of 70,766 two weeks ago, the highest recorded number since the pandemic began. As of Thursday, there were 37,151 reported cases.

The one standout: Maine, which reported a record 748 new cases on Wednesday. Over the past week, there has been an average of 454 cases per day, an increase of 42 percent from the average two weeks earlier.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, a Democrat, said that the state was over a spike in coronavirus cases caused by Thanksgiving gatherings and that “the most important thing you can do right now is stay close to home.”

“I’m scared maybe you’re going to go down to Fort Lauderdale and maybe have a little party on New Year’s Eve, then you fly back and pretty soon you’re going back to high school or something like that,” Mr. Lamont said. “That’s a real risk. So I’m urging with every bone in my body to be cautious a little bit longer. That’s how we get through this.”

Lynne Seymour, center, in Berkeley with her mother in 1954.
Credit…via Lynn Seymour

Lynne Seymour was 8 years old in 1955, when her mother, a nurse, let out a startling noise while listening to the radio at their home in Berkeley, Calif.

“She started jumping up and down, crying and laughing at the same time,” Ms. Seymour recalls. “It scared me a little because I didn’t know what was happening. So I said, ‘Mom, what is it?’”

Her mother explained that Dr. Jonas Salk, a medical researcher, had developed a vaccine for a dangerous virus.

“It meant we wouldn’t have to worry about polio anymore, and children wouldn’t be in iron lungs and we would go back to the swimming pool,” Ms. Seymour said. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted.”

For Americans of a certain generation, the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine has evoked powerful memories of an earlier era — and of the moment when their childhood was rescued from fear and the sudden loss of classmates and siblings.

The first polio epidemic in the United States began in Vermont in 1894, an outbreak that killed 18 people and left at least 58 paralyzed. Waves of pernicious outbreaks, targeting children, would mar the next half-century.

In the country’s worst single year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected and more than 3,000 died. Many were paralyzed, notably including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would become president and hide his disability. Others were consigned to life in an iron lung, a type of ventilator that encased a child’s body to ease breathing.

Dr. Salk made an ambitious bet that he could develop a vaccine for polio using inactivated virus. When his trial was successful in April 1955, church bells rang and households cheered.

This time around, the news of a vaccine was greeted with a scene of dancing health care workers quickly spreading on TikTok and triumphant post-injection selfies being widely shared.

Different era. Same sentiment.


Samanta Romanese, center, head of the “Books on the phone” initiative, assists a client in the Ubik Bookstore in Trieste, Italy, last week.
Credit…Francesca Volpi for The New York Times

Much as the pandemic has been a story of devastation and loss, it has also been one of resilience — of individual people, families and entire communities not only surviving a deadly threat but seeing in the moment a chance to serve others. We asked our correspondents around the world to share stories from this year that speak to the strength of the human spirit, and to how disruption can bring out the best in us.

When an Italian bookstore appealed for volunteers to read stories or poems to elderly and homebound people locked in by the virus, they figured a few bookworms might heed the call.

“We wanted to reach people who are isolated in this moment and might be feeling alone,” said Samanta Romanese, who works at the Ubik bookstore, a local institution in the northeastern seaport city of Trieste.

The idea was that Ms. Romanese and her three co-workers — and with luck a few volunteers — would read to people for around 20 minutes over the phone during breaks, and on days off. “We were thinking small,” she said.

But the response was overwhelming.

After the bookstore issued its appeal late last month, more than 150 volunteers signed up. Some were Italians living as far away as the Netherlands and England. Some were members of a theater company that itself has been sidelined by the virus.

Ms. Romanese said she reached out to local health authorities, parishes, social services and the Red Cross to identify potential people to read to. Volunteers and listeners chat a little, read a little.

Ms. Romanese said she had been inspired by a story she’d read on social media about a Madrid librarian who was reading to the elderly during the pandemic.

Ms. Romanese’s initiative in Trieste was timed to coincide with Christmas, but is now open-ended.

“In a world that is becoming increasingly inhumane and dehumanizing, in a moment made more difficult by this virus, I believe that it is fundamental to remain human, to reach out, to really look out for one another,” she said.

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