March 17, 2020 / 2:02 AM / 14 days ago

U.S. schools scramble to teach, feed students as they shut down

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Students and parents have begun settling into a new reality of online learning and packaged meals as the coronavirus outbreak has forced the abrupt closing of school systems and districts, large and small, across the United States.

Some 32 million U.S. school children in at least 33 states are facing weeks away from their classes after educators and politicians ordered schools to close to help halt the spread of the pandemic, according to Education Week.

School closings have left many students to complete class work mostly on their own while many parents who live pay-check-to-pay-check scramble to feed their children the meals they would otherwise have gotten at school.

“I am down to the bare minimum right now. ... It’s always tight, but with this happening it’s even tighter,” said 37-year-old part-time cook Amy Hernandez as her voice quivered.

The single mother said she had to buy a bunch of 34-cent boxes of macaroni and cheese to feed her two daughters, ages 6 and 10, to get by before she gets paid on Friday.

“It’s just so sudden and unexpected ... it’s just so stressful,” Hernandez said on Monday, a day after the School District of Oconee County in northern South Carolina cancelled classes for two weeks for her daughters and 10,400 other children.

Oconee County schools will begin providing food to students later this week. Some districts were providing meals to pupils at school sites while other districts, like the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest, instructed students and parents to go to their school to pick up packages containing several meals.

Educators warn that the closing of schools poses serious challenges that can disproportionately affect low-income and special needs students, including those who rely on schools for nutritious meals. While most American households have broadband internet, there are big disparities when it comes to laptops and home supervision.

“As K-12 officials in many states close schools and shift classes and assignments online due to the spread of the new coronavirus, they confront the reality that some students do not have reliable access to the internet at home,” the Pew Research Centre said on Monday.

The centre pointed to a 2018 survey that indicated 20% of teenagers 13 to 17 years old said they sometimes are unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet service.

WEBINARS AND ONLINE INSTRUCTION

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school system in the United States, will open 40 family resource centres on Wednesday, where under-privileged students can study and eat throughout the day.

In New York, the country’s largest school system, educators were given until the end of the week to develop a remote-learning plan for the system’s 1.1 million students after Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down schools on Sunday.

At the Westchester Torah Academy, in White Plains, New York, students have been working from home in virtual classrooms for about week after the outbreak spread to the area.

“Our goal was to keep routine as much as we can,” said Deganit Ronen, the school’s principal. “The most important part of this is trying to keep kids in an atmosphere where they feel safe and familiar.”

Many school districts are sending children home with packets that include daily and longer-term assignments and lessons. Some of the work requires online material while in other cases the work can be completed without internet access.

Jill Booth-Clibborn, a 47-year-old who works from home as an occupational therapist recruiter, sends her two daughters to the Los Angeles United School District. Her 11-year-old will get what amounts to two days of online instruction each week.

“My daughter who is in middle school was sitting at her desk (at home) at 8:30 this morning ... she really snapped into shape this morning,” Booth-Clibborn said.

Her older daughter, who is in high school, has access to a week’s worth of assignments online along with several webinars.

“The high schoolers are expected to digest it and do it and ask for help,” Booth-Clibborn said. “For my daughter, that works for her because she’s a good student and she’s on it and motivated. I could imagine that becoming bad for other people.”

Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; editing by Bill Tarant and Leslie Adler

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