When the pandemic forced children from their desks and onto Zoom in March, Mercedes Milian was concerned for two of her children’s education. 

LA Unified, the second-largest school district in America, decided that their students would return to remote classrooms on Aug. 18, and Milian predicts there will be challenges for her family. She must rely on her mother, who is in her 60s, to supervise the children while Milian works.

Now Milian, a Hispanic mother of two, will return to work as a senior office clerk at a high school while her elementary-schoolers study at home. “It doesn’t make me feel very confident in leaving them with my mom,” Milian said. “I feel like it’s going to be too much for her running back and forth.”

Prior to the coming school year, she was one of many parents dealing with scarce technology, poor communication from the school and digitally inexperienced instructors.

Despite reaching out numerous times, Milian says the administration at her children’s school hardly responded. She became her children’s personal tech support.

Initially, her family overlooked both children’s laptop needs. Scarcity at their school in South Gate, a city north of Compton, meant there was only one Chromebook for her two children.

“Their classes were, at first, [at] different times. But, when they started overlapping, my son’s class started taking longer and longer,” she said. This made it more difficult for Milian’s daughter to attend her class. 

Milian loaned her phone to her daughter until they managed to purchase a second Chromebook.

Internet connectivity was another obstacle. The family’s connection was not strong enough to support two simultaneous Zoom sessions. Unlike other LAUSD schools, the one that her children attended did not offer internet hotspots.

Milian's daughter working on her homework with her mother's phone. (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Milian).
Milian's daughter working on her homework with her mother's phone. (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Milian).

“I would have to connect [my daughter’s] device on my phone’s wifi [hotspot] so she could get full access in the back of the house, while my son was in the front of the house” Milian said. “[T-Mobile] told me that because of everything that’s going on it was included on my plan.”

Although Milian was able to overcome each obstacle on her own, not all families can. One-third of LAUSD households lack access to the technology required for remote learning, while roughly one in three South Gate households also lack access, according to a report by the Annenberg Research Network on International Communication. Additionally, students of color are less likely to have access, regardless of income.

Eighty percent of LAUSD’s 700,000 students are living in poverty, while 50% of their families have lost jobs because of the pandemic. “They also tell us many children are struggling to learn online,” said LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner in a statement.

Considering the technological resources required for online learning, LAUSD partnered with nonprofits and internet service providers to better equip schools and facilitate better connectivity. Though the pandemic tasked these organizations with finding solutions, the school system was not ready.

When the pandemic began, many people expected it to last only a few weeks. The goal was to cope with online classes. Now, there’s no way of knowing when it will end.

Early on, pandemic discounts became a common offer with internet service providers. In March, Charter Communications, branded as Spectrum, gave 60 days of free Wi-Fi to new K-12 family subscribers. 

Charter ensured its customers that it would continue reacting to the pandemic and providing consistent service, according to a company press release. But, when the 60 days were over, the promotion locked new subscribers into a costly normal subscription, even as many people’s incomes shrunk or disappeared altogether.

Last spring, class participation among students from low-income families measured anywhere between 10% and 20% less than students from higher income families, according to a report released by LAUSD in July. Black and Hispanic students’ participation also measured 10% to 20% less than other students.

LAUSD paired with School2Home, a statewide program focused on equipping schools and families with the guidance and resources necessary to facilitate effective online learning for lower-income families. 

When asked about this poor outreach and communication from schools, Matthew Llamas, a professional development consultant with School2Home said that teachers’ assistants will say, “‘My union says I can’t change my role.‘”

Additionally, Llamas pointed out that LAUSD teachers, their assistants and school administrators have a lot on their plate. He believes the burden of student outreach and retention should fall on the district rather than schools.

“We had to close down some positions,” Milian said. “They let go of two other clerks that were there with me, helping me, so we’re gonna have to juggle all that work.”

Milian's children attending online school. (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Milian)
Milian's children attending online school. (Photo courtesy of Mercedes Milian)