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Berwyn teachers, students struggle with inequities of remote learning

Internet access, financial struggles, legal status make e-learning tough

Genesis Gonzalez, a kindergartener at Hiawatha Elementary School, writes sentences in Spanish as a part of an exercise. Genesis is one of many students from Berwyn South School District 100 who have turned to at-home learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Genesis Gonzalez, a kindergartener at Hiawatha Elementary School, writes sentences in Spanish as a part of an exercise. Genesis is one of many students from Berwyn South School District 100 who have turned to at-home learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

BERWYN – There's a tweet that Lucy Carrera shared recently that perfectly sums up all of the struggles that she and her fellow educators have faced during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It reads, "Remote learning simply isn't equitable. Living conditions, adult support, online access, and access to food varies drastically. We need a plan moving forward if this happens again. #KidsDeserveIt #equity"

The initial post came from TeacherGoals, a social media account created by an educator for educators and spotlights "what's funny, frustrating and fantastic about education." For Carrera, a biliteracy coach at Berwyn South School District 100, that simple statement is her reality. It is a challenge that has become more and more visible each day, ever since Gov. JB Pritzker called for school closures mid-March.

The statewide mandate, which was coupled by a shelter-in-place order, was deemed a safety measure to slow the spread of COVID-19. But, as the number of cases and deaths steadily increased in Illinois, Pritzker announced March 31 that schools will remain closed until the end of April.

District 100 consists of six elementary schools and two middle schools, serving more than 3,700 students. March 17 marked the first day of the district's grab-and-go meal program, which offered free breakfast and lunch for children and teens under 18. In the first three days, nearly 3,000 meals were given away, and school officials vowed to continue the service during spring break.

"But, that's the reality – if their basic needs are met," Carrera said.

Especially under these circumstances, learning new math problems, for example, fall secondary to larger issues, she explained.

"That's not going to fix anything, if [students] haven't been fed or if they're having to move out of their house because [their parents or guardians] haven't made the payments."

About 81 percent of students from District 100 come from low-income families, according to the 2018-19 Illinois State Board of Education report card. This district is a working class community, said Beatriz Maldonado, director of language acquisition. From health care workers to housekeepers and grocery store clerks, some of these parents and guardians don't have the luxury of working from home, she said.

Carrera added that long before the outbreak, she and many of her colleagues have worked alongside families, who've faced different uncertainties. Some have had their phones or internet disconnected, she said, because they couldn't pay their bills. Others have dealt with homelessness or living without legal status. Reaching out to students affected by issues like those were already a challenge, which have now become bigger barriers.

"Is there that one child out there that has no one [and] is afraid? How ... there's no way to get to them," Carrera said. "That's the scary part."

'I have no control of when or how they do it'

In the last three weeks, Carrera and Maldonado, along with other teachers, principals and faculty, have worked to revamp their remote learning curriculum and meet the state's new guidelines. Pre-kindergartners should have at least 20 minutes a day – an hour max – of remote learning. The length of time increases per grade level from there, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

For example, first- and second-graders are required a minimum of 45 minutes per day for remote learning, while sixth- through eighth-graders should clock in an hour and a half to three hours of studying. District 100 has also adopted a one-to-one model, meaning students have iPads, which they use to connect with peers and teachers.

"We want the learning to continue. Of course, everybody wants that," Carrera said. "But, we also have to check ourselves and be realistic. It's hard enough teaching them everything we need, even when they're in front of us and we have control."

That control doesn't exist now, and educators, like Carrera, have had to learn to let go of that control and remind themselves, "I can put out the best plan, the best activities, but I have no control of when or how they do it – or even if, to be honest with you."

During times like these, communication is key. In a district where 28 percent of the student population are English learners, relaying information, whether it's about how to apply for low-cost internet or the pick-up location for the grab-and-go, is vital. Every flyer, social media post and notification is available in English and Spanish. A majority of district students – a little more than 84 percent – identifies as Latino or Hispanic.

"Our parents want to be included and want to be involved in school," Theresa Adelphia, a literacy coach at Hiawatha Elementary School, said of offering non-English translations.

"It's super important, because that was my family," Adelphia said, reflecting on her own childhood and experience in school. "My mom, growing up, didn't speak the language. So, it was always up to the kids to translate, which didn't make any sense because we were kids."

With that, Adelphia and Rosa Espino, a dual language teacher at Hiawatha, have found themselves taking the extra step to connect with families, starting by just calling parents and guardians personally and asking how they're doing.

Espino, who teaches a class of 24 kindergartners, has recorded lessons in both English and Spanish. She's also held Zoom meetings, not only to check in with her students, but with parents, as well.

As educators, they believe that the care and love they have for their students go far beyond the classrooms. It's been a tough balancing act, Carrera said.

"Teachers are struggling," because we spend more time with our co-workers than sometimes, we do on family," she said. "Luckily, we have been able to meet virtually, most of us, but that also is a drain on you because [of] the added pressure of performing in a way that we've never had to do before."

And, that's the thing. When Pritzker extended school closures to early May, Adelphia said the conversations changed once again, and District 100 faculty, families and officials are not alone in this discussion. They have to now look at how this pandemic will affect students' education in the long run.

At this point, the possibility of reopening schools in May isn't definitive.

"It's difficult because we are telling kids, 'It's OK. Just chill. Be home. Be safe with your family,' but the reality is that they're missing a lot of content right now," Adelphia said.

"It has come up in a few discussions that there has to be some sort of conversation of if we don't come back in May – which I really hope that we do – then at the beginning of the year for next year, there has to be some sort of way to help everybody kind of get back on track," she continued. "And, I really don't know what that will look like."