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May 30, 2020

Home school

Co-produced with PRX Logo

The coronavirus pandemic has forced students to do most of their learning online, but what about the tens of millions of families who don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet? Reporter Will Carless investigates why an estimated $100 billion in federal spending has failed to close the digital divide. 

In our next story, high school junior Sarah Alli-Brown shares an audio diary of what life has been like since her Chicago high school closed its doors in mid-March. Alli-Brown has twin 8-year-old brothers. With their school shuttered and their single mom working two jobs as an essential worker, Alli-Brown now cares for her siblings full time while also trying to balance the challenges of distance learning. 

Next, host Al Letson talks to Michelle Sandoval Villegas, who last year was named Texas secondary teacher of the year. Villegas, a math teacher at Parkland Middle School in El Paso, describes the challenges of teaching remotely while also helping to ensure her students have their basic needs met.

Finally, we dip into Ginger Cook’s class at Acorn Woodland Elementary School in Oakland, California, to hear what her third-grade students like best about sheltering in place and what they wish they could change. 

This episode was produced in partnership with Chalkbeat.

Credits

Reported by: Will Carless

Produced by: Patrick Michels, Michael I Schiller, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Kevin Sullivan

Edited by: Brett Myers and Esther Kaplan

Production Manager: Mwende Hinojosa

Production Assistance: Amy Mostafa

Music & Sound Design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Mixing: Jim Briggs, Fernando Arruda and Claire Mullen

Executive Producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel; Sumi Aggarwal Director of Collaborations

Special Thanks: Today’s show was a partnership with the education newsroom Chalkbeat. Thanks to their staff Sarah Darville, Kalyn Belsha, Reema Amin, Dylan Peers McCoy, Christina Veiga, Yesenia Robles and Eric Gorski. Thanks also all the educators who helped us with the show, including Antonella Vitale, Kristina Beecher and Israt Nali. 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

It's early in the morning, and kids across America are starting their daily routine, getting ready for school.

Virginia Tyree:

You got the computer?

Molly:

Yeah.

Virginia Tyree:

Is it charged up and ready to go?

Molly:

Yes.

Al Letson:

Since the Coronavirus hit, that means getting up, getting dressed, and finding your way to a fast internet connection. For lots of kids, the kitchen table or bedroom has become the classroom. For kids who don't have a broadband connection at home, well, it's a different story.

Virginia Tyree:

Hey, sweetie, will you grab my mask?

Al Letson:

Virginia Tyree and her daughter Molly are off in search of a wifi signal. They live a few miles outside of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia.

Virginia Tyree:

All right, so, let's see what you got.

Al Letson:

Molly is 10 years old. She's a fifth-grader in public school.

Virginia Tyree:

Try and load up.

Al Letson:

She's here in her school's parking lot, in the rain, trying to get onto the wifi, because no one provides service for reliable high-speed internet at home.

Virginia Tyree:

Is it working okay? What does it say?

Al Letson:

This morning, they're crammed into the car. When it's nice out, they set up a card table and folding chairs outside the principal's office. It's the only way Molly can join Zoom classes, watch videos, and try to keep up with schoolwork.

Meanwhile, across the country, in Oakland, California, a different kid has a similar problem.

Alexis:

Comb your hair. Are you hungry?

Ava:

No, I'm fine.

Alexis:

Okay. So, let's do this.

Al Letson:

Ava is nine years old. She's a third-grader.

Ava:

Waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Al Letson:

Her dad, Alexis, is recording their morning routine.

Alexis:

Well, this computer takes forever.

Ava:

Yeah, it always takes forever.

Al Letson:

They don't have broadband at home either. They're using Alexis's cell phone as a hotspot to connect their laptop to the web.

Alexis:

This is very slower. Are you sure you're not hungry.

Ava:

I'm fine.

Alexis:

Okay.

Al Letson:

Alexis has been out of work from his job as an audio engineer since the pandemic shut down concert venues, so right now, he can't afford to sign a contract to get internet service at home.

Ava:

Join a meeting. Okay.

Alexis:

Join the meeting.

Ava:

Okay, let me just put the ID in. Okay. Connecting. Oh, it started!

Al Letson:

There are two main reasons that Americans don't have broadband at home. Either it's took expensive ...

Alexis:

We've just got to make sure ... Let me make sure my hotspot is on.

Ava:

Okay.

Al Letson:

Or no one has laid the high-speed cables to reach their home.

Virginia Tyree:

Make sure you're on the ... what did she say, the guest one?

Molly:

Open.

Virginia Tyree:

The open. Okay.

Al Letson:

But no matter where you live in America, or what situation you're in, if your morning school bell sounds like this, it's going to be a tough day at school.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The federal government spent billions of dollars over the past decade to close the so-called digital divide, but when the pandemic hit, about one in every eight kids in the United States still didn't have broadband at home. Black and Latinx kids are most likely to be without a connection.

This divide was a problem before the Coronavirus hit. When it came to homework, kids with high-speed internet access had an edge over those who didn't have it. Now that homework gap has become a full-blown education gap. Reveal's Will Carless has been looking into why we are still here.

Will Carless:

Back in 2008, President Barack Obama made a promise to America.

Barack Obama:

It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online.

Will Carless:

Almost 12 years later, the US isn't 15th in broadband adoption. It's now 18th. Dr. Chris Ali has spent the last few years researching a book about the nationwide effort to close the digital divide.

Dr. Ali:

We are spending a lot of money. We're just not spending it efficiently, and we're not spending it democratically.

Will Carless:

Dr. Ali is an associate professor in media studies at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Ali:

Well, we've been spending roughly $8 billion a year since 2015, so that would be at least $40 billion, plus the USDA controls another billion, and they've been doing that since ...

Will Carless:

He goes on like this for a while, tallying.

Dr. Ali:

I'd say upwards of, all things being said and done, probably $100 billion that we have spent in the last 20 years trying to connect this country.

Will Carless:

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, managed a good portion of that money, doling out huge grants to big internet service providers.

Dr. Ali:

We gave a ton of money to the nine biggest telecommunications companies. Those are companies like AT&T, Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream. We gave them a billion dollars a year, and we said, "Go forth and connect America."

Will Carless:

The companies laid hundreds of thousands of miles of cables to bring broadband to places that didn't have it. But Dr. Ali says they often didn't do a good job, and they didn't have to, because companies helped write the rules.

Dr. Ali:

This is a colossal failure, and we failed in a number of capacities. They didn't have to deploy fiber optic connections, for instance. They could just keep rolling out their old school copper networks, their old school DSL networks, which were a lot cheaper. So, we were giving them billions of dollars to connect rural America with a 1990s-era technology, and this was in 2015.

Will Carless:

In 2015, CenturyLink and Frontier Communications won government grants to help them build new rural broadband networks. These are two of the nation's biggest internet service providers. Combined, the FCC gave those two companies $3.2 billion over four years, but in January, CenturyLink admitted it was failing to meet its contractual deadlines to deploy broadband networks in 23 of the 33 states it was working in. The other company, Frontier, was failing to meet its commitments in 13 states. Last month, Frontier declared bankruptcy amid mountains of debt. Still, both companies are expected to apply for more federal funds. $20 billion will be distributed starting later this year.

Gigi Sohn:

Neither Frontier nor CenturyLink have been reprimanded or punished by the FCC in any way, shape or form for taking billions of dollars from taxpayers and not building the networks they promised.

Will Carless:

Gigi Sohn is a lawyer who worked for the FCC under Obama. Now she researches the digital divide and regularly testifies to Congress about what needs to be done to get Americans connected. The FCC claims around 21 million Americans aren't connected to fixed, fast broadband connections. Gigi says that number is closer to 141 million.

Gigi Sohn:

The FCC's numbers are grossly inaccurate, by their own admission, and by the admission of bipartisan members of Congress, because the way they count who has broadband grossly overstates who has broadband.

Will Carless:

Who are the people right now in America who are primarily impacted by the digital divide?

Gigi Sohn:

The digital divide in America is largely urban, it's largely low-income, and it's largely minority communities. And that's for a number of systemic reasons, discrimination in credit, discrimination in housing.

Will Carless:

For about three of every four families without broadband, the problem isn't infrastructure. There's a connection running to their house, but they haven't connected to it, usually because they can't afford to. That was the case for Shawanda Tyson. She's a single mom who works as a cashier at Wal-mart. When the Coronavirus hit, she and her son had just moved into a new home in Indianapolis.

Shawanda Tyson:

I just moved in, and I'm playing for a lot of other bills, so it was basically like mapping out my bills for the month. That wasn't something I was going to pay for immediately.

Will Carless:

Shawanda got creative. She and her fifth-grade son Morell would drive to a daycare that her sister owned.

Shawanda Tyson:

So, basically what I did was pack my son up every day, took him to the daycare, and we sat out in front of the daycare, used the wifi.

Will Carless:

Shawanda's son is autistic, and she didn't want him to fall behind in school.

Shawanda Tyson:

And we worked in the car for about a couple hours, 3-4 hours in the car.

Will Carless:

On hot days, it was especially claustrophobic.

Shawanda Tyson:

It's been rough because my windows don't roll down. I reached the point where I just couldn't take it no more. It was frustrating, keeping a kid inside a car for four hours. That is like the hardest thing ever to do. It stressed him out, that he as unsure if he was going to pass into the sixth grade because he wasn't able to do some of his work.

Will Carless:

Eventually, Shawanda was able to get internet installed at home. Several broadband providers are offering deals during the Coronavirus crisis, and she signed up for a bundle from a company called Spectrum. She gets two months of free internet and TV, and after that her bill will balloon to $96 a month. Shawanda doesn't know how she'll afford it.

Shawanda Tyson:

It's going to be a hardship, another hardship for parents to keep up and maintain. I just wonder how I'm going to survive through the month.

Jessica Gonzale...:

For education, an internet connection is just like what a pencil and a piece of paper was for us when we were in school.

Will Carless:

Jessica Gonzales is CEO of Free Press, one of the leading organizations pushing for universal access to broadband. She'd like to see broadband more strictly regulated by the FCC, with controls over quality of service and even price capping.

Jessica Gonzale...:

We're at the point now where broadband is clearly a utility. We need the internet to do our jobs. Our kids need it now to do their homework and to get their education.

Will Carless:

The FCC moved towards regulating broadband more heavily under President Obama, but under President Trump, those policies were reversed. The agency does have two programs aimed at closing the affordability barrier. The most significant is called Lifeline.

Jessica Gonzale...:

It really is the only federal program that's poised to make sure that people do not lose their connections during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Will Carless:

Lifeline started under President Reagan, and was expanded by President Obama. It was originally supposed to get telephones into people's homes, but under Obama, it became the flagship program to get low-income urban communities connected to the internet. Lifeline sends families up to $9.25 a month to put towards their monthly internet bills. Today, that won't get you much. According to one national survey, broadband across most of the country costs more than $50 a month, and the program's under heavy attack from Trump's FCC.

Jessica Gonzale...:

And what the FCC has done with that since Trump took office is to essentially kill the program in a death by a million cuts sort of way.

Will Carless:

Lifeline's budget's been cut in half because fewer people are applying for it. Advocates for broadband say the FCC's made it too complicated and time-consuming to apply. Jessica finds this frustrating.

Jessica Gonzale...:

And I'm frankly disgusted that the FCC has been so focused on cutting down Lifeline and not nearly as interested in holding broadband providers accountable for their waste. It is heartbreaking to see how kids who live in poor neighborhoods are learning in this moment. If we require that every child has a textbook to do their learning in school, then we ought to require that every child be provided with an internet connection.

Will Carless:

Much of who does and does not get access to broadband depends on which party is in power. The FCC's run by a five-person commission. Right now, two are Democrats, and the other three were appointed by President Trump, including chairman Ajit Pai. He declined to talk to us for this story, but commissioner Brendan Carr, also a Trump appointee, sat for an interview. Commissioner Carr blames the Obama administration for failing to narrow the digital divide. He ways the FCC is now back on track.

Brendan Carr:

We had more miles of high-speed internet built out in this country, over 400,000 miles of high-speed internet last year alone. That's smashed prior records. That's more fiber than was ever built out under any prior regime. 6.5 million homes were newly passed with fiber last year alone.

Will Carless:

A lot of those miles of cable have been installed in rural areas, and even more is coming. In October, right before the election, the FCC will start handing out $20 billion in funding to large companies to expand service in rural areas, areas that substantially overlap with Trump's base. Meanwhile, the far-smaller FCC programs that send money to low-income urban areas, the Democratic base, have been cut back. We asked commissioner Carr why the FCC is still spending more on rural infrastructure when affordability is the bigger problem.

Brendan Carr:

What I'm saying is that we're working on multiple different fronts. We have our E-Rate program, which budgets roughly $4 billion a year.

Will Carless:

E-Rate is an FCC program that provides broadband in schools and libraries.

Brendan Carr:

We have the $20 fixed program and we work directly with carriers as well to support their rollout of new low-income programs, so we are tackling this monumental challenge both in rural communities and in urban communities alike.

Will Carless:

That's $20 billion for new infrastructure, versus $1.5 billion for Lifeline. We asked commissioner Carr about this disparity.

Brendan Carr:

Well, we're spending it in both, and we have to, and these are the two main components of the digital divide.

Will Carless:

Another FCC commissioner, Obama appointee Jessica Rosenworcel, has a different take.

Jessica Rosenwo...:

Shame on us. We're looking the other way in the middle of this crisis. There's more we can do to connect everyone. Because this is the infrastructure our future rides on, we've got to connect everyone everywhere.

Will Carless:

I asked commissioner Rosenworcel if Lifeline has the full support of the current FCC.

Jessica Rosenwo...:

The answer is no. I think the current FCC has focused almost singularly on rural deployment, and they have not explored how we can use the tools from Lifeline and E-Rate to help solve the adoption component.

Will Carless:

And is the FCC doing anything to expand during the biggest economic, education access, and health crisis in decades?

Jessica Rosenwo...:

The agency has taken baby steps. I think this crisis, it's clearly time to do something big and bold, and there's a lot more we can do with programs like Lifeline and E-Rate to reach some of the most vulnerable folks in this country.

Will Carless:

In recent weeks, speaker Nancy Pelosi and house Democrats passed the HEROES Act.

Nancy Pelosi:

We must honor our heroes in the Coronavirus crisis with support, not just words. We must address the pain of families who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

Will Carless:

Congress set aside $13 billion back in March for schools to help students with things like wifi hotspots. The HEROES Act would take that a step further, authorizing additional money for schools, plus another $4 going directly to low-income families to pay for home internet, up to $50 a month.

Meanwhile, for internet service providers, business is booming. In its first quarter this year, Comcast gained more than a half a million new broadband customers. Charter Communications signed up nearly 600,000, many of them lured in my a promotion of two free months before the full charges kick in. That's just like the deal Shawanda Tyson signed up for after she and her son Morell grew tired of homeschooling inside her midsized sedan.

Shawanda Tyson:

Yeah, it comes down to affordability. You choose between putting food on your kids' plate or educating them, because you want to give your children the best education possible. And internet in the home should not be a stipulation. If that's the way we have to teach our children, and the way they have to learn, then we shouldn't have to go to bed worrying about how we're going to pay that bill that is due.

Will Carless:

Even if the $50 a month broadband benefit in the HEROES Act gets signed into law, that would still only cover about half Shawanda's bill, and the bills of millions of Americans like her, stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Al Letson:

That's Reveal's Will Carless. Our story was produced by Michael I Schiller.

With schools closing across the country, students are under enormous pressure.

Sarah Ali Brown:

And now, it's just like, what is my purpose? Why am I here? Can I even read anymore? Can I even write an essay? I'm like, what is wrong with me?

Al Letson:

Passing in a Pandemic. That's next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

The digital divide isn't the only thing affecting kids' access to education these days. What good is high-speed internet if kids barely have time to log on? Some students now have to get jobs to support their struggling families. Others are caring for sick relatives, and many are spending their days taking care of younger siblings.

Sarah Ali Brown:

My name is Sarah Ali Brown. I'm in Chicago, Illinois.

Al Letson:

Sarah Ali Brown is 16 years old. She's a high school junior and her school's been closed since March 19th.

Sarah Ali Brown:

We're in this pandemic right now, no school, we can't go outside. I'm in the house with my two little brothers, my big brother, my cousin, and my mom, and my cat,- Lollipop.

Al Letson:

Without school, Sarah misses her community of friends that she depends on.

Sarah Ali Brown:

I was always a social butterfly. I have so many friends. Everybody knows, like, oh, that girl, Sarah. Everyone loves me. I don't really know how to turn that off.

Al Letson:

But with sheltering in place, she's had to turn that off. Also, Sarah's just one of those kids who loves school. She gets good grades, prepping for the SATs, and dreams of going to Stanford.

Sarah Ali Brown:

I'm doing it all, and then my teacher finally brings up Corona and we'll be out of school for a certain time, and it's just like, what? Now it all has to stop? For what, a little virus?

Al Letson:

As distance learning stretches on, Sarah is beginning to struggle. Classes feel harder, and she's losing confidence.

Sarah Ali Brown:

And now, it's just like, what is my purpose? Why am I here? Can I even read anymore? Can I even write an essay? I'm like, what is wrong with me?

Al Letson:

On top of all of this, her single mom is an essential worker, a caregiver for the elderly and disabled. She works two jobs to support the family, so with Sarah's eight-year-old twin brothers also out of school, that leaves Sarah to care for them full-time on top of trying to keep up with everything else. We asked Sarah to record her daily life to give us a look at what it's like to be a student in the midst of the pandemic.

Sarah Ali Brown:

My mom is never home. She works around the clock. Her name is Oluwafunmike, but people call her Olu for short.

Olu:

I'm from Nigeria. I'm 44.

Sarah Ali Brown:

My mom, she's an immigrant from Nigeria. She's been in this country half her life. She works really, really hard.

Okay, Mommy, can you describe your day-to-day life? Basically, how has Coronavirus changed, from your day-to-day life, how has it changed it?

Olu:

It's really changed.

Sarah Ali Brown:

Explain.

Olu:

Since Coronavirus passed, I've been working a lot of hours, so when I came home from my night job ...

Sarah Ali Brown:

At night she works as an aide in a nursing home. She gets off around 7 in the morning and she comes straight home.

Olu:

I put on my clothes. I go to my other job.

Sarah Ali Brown:

And then she's right back out the door. She goes to her other job as a home health aide.

So, you go to your other job without sleeping?

Olu:

Yes, yes. I don't sleep.

Sarah Ali Brown:

My dad isn't around. He left when I was in the seventh grade.

What makes you go?

Olu:

I go because I have to go to work to make sure I'll be okay. I have a mortgage to pay. I have a lot of bills to pay, and someone needs me.

Sarah Ali Brown:

My mom, she takes care of everything. She pays the mortgage, the bills. But if she is at the top of the pyramid, I'm literally right under her, because as soon as she steps out the house, the responsibility is all on me.

I'm basically responsible for my two brothers. It's like, when they need something, they come to me.

Sorry, it's my little brother. His name is Samuel. I have twin little brothers. One has autism. Samuel doesn't really talk much. He's probably hungry or something. That's probably why he came in my room. What does he want? She wants me to make him write. Okay. Sam's like, everything [inaudible]. Sam, the way he calls me, he basically just pulls my arm, and whatever he wants he just brings my arm towards it, pulling me and telling me, this is what I want.

Samuel needs school most of all. He misses his speech therapist. I do what I can to teach him new words. Most days it's not even enough, but we are good company to each other.

What autism is to me, I don't see it as a disability. I try to recognize patterns. Why is he tapping his finger? Why is he doing this? And what people usually think is, someone who doesn't talk or jumping up and down or don't like loud noises. But once you kind of understand what it is or what he's going through, that boy is so very, very smart.

Then there's Samuel's twin, Emanuel.

So now, Emanuel's bouncing his ball around. I've got to talk to him.

Emanuel:

What? What do I do?

Sarah Ali Brown:

Sit down. How is life with me in the Coronavirus?

Emanuel:

You're okay. I said okay. Don't get too emotional. One of the pros is that I sleep whenever I want. Cons is a ton. There's a ton of cons.

Sarah Ali Brown:

Child, please let me know what the cons are.

Emanuel:

You scream too much. You talk to your friends too much. You kicked me out of your room one time just to listen to music. There's only one pro. That's it.

Sarah Ali Brown:

How am I to you?

Emanuel:

You're okay at taking care of us, I guess.

Sarah Ali Brown:

Okay? Can I get a great, awesome, wonderful? I'm great at taking care of you. Say it.

Emanuel:

You're great.

Sarah Ali Brown:

At what?

Emanuel:

At taking care of me, yes.

Sarah Ali Brown:

Ding, ding, ding. Thank you. We'll talk later.

Emanuel:

I'm not going to talk later. You suck at ...

Sarah Ali Brown:

At night when it's quiet, I think about everything I'm trying to do.

It was 11:00, and I was just thinking. I was thinking a lot. So I'm like, this is the perfect time to record my thoughts, and I was thinking about this program called Chicago Scholars. It's like a really great program, and it gives you scholarship money for college. If you get into it, you know you're one of the best students in your high school. So, when they sent me the email that was like, congratulations, you made it to the next part of Chicago Scholars, I was like the happiest person in the world.

So, I have to do video interviews, and if the pandemic wasn't going on, they would have did face-to-face in person, and over video I messed up so many times. The first question, I didn't even answer it. There was also another question that was like, tell me about yourself. I could not even tell them about myself. Honestly, I was just like, my favorite color and stuff. I'm Nigerian. I was just not saying what I was supposed to be saying. But honestly, I was just so scared all of my nerves got the best of me, because this is so, so big. And it's just like, really? Did I really just mess this up for myself?

I did what I always do when I'm sad. I put on some music.

(singing)

My favorite rapper, his name is Lil Baby. He said a line, and he was like, sometimes I feel like the floor is giving in on me.

(singing)

I worked so hard, but I can't stop, because people are depending on me, and that's my life right now. My mom depends on me. My little brothers. This moment, I felt like the floor was actually giving in on me. Like, this is one of the best opportunities ever, and to know that I basically failed on something that was just so, so great to me because I couldn't do it in person, I feel heartbroken.

(singing)

But I have to keep going. My brothers still have to pass the third grade. I'm the one who helped them log on to e-learning. Sometimes they don't want to do it, and they're always asking for food.

I'm about to make Emanuel a Hot Pocket right now, because he rudely came in my room asking for a Hot Pocket. Yep. I'll call you when they're done. I'm what, [inaudible]?

Speaker 18:

Nothing!

Sarah Ali Brown:

He just called me a name. He thinks I didn't just hear him call me a name.

I feel like a bad person saying this, but there's times when it's like, oh my gosh, it's being too much, it's being too much. I just can't anymore. It's when I feel like a total of 20 assignments from my teachers, and they're expecting me to do it, and I have eight other things to do at home. I have to try to help Samuel say a couple of words. Even though I'm not licensed to do that, I still want to try and do things. Or with Emanuel, I have to help him get on e-learning and get him a couple assignments, because I don't want him watching TV and playing that game all day.

Now I have to learn how to prioritize, which in school you have a schedule set right in front of you. But knowing in my current life, okay, the twins need me as well, too. I'm doing this, and I still have good grades, and I'm still trying, and I'm still taking care of the twins and doing what I need to do. So it's like, okay, this is a story I can go tell them, like when you guys were eight, I was at home with you guys all day, and you guys was blowing my mind, but I still made it and I still overcame.

My mom is getting ready for work. She's out there in this pandemic taking care of tons of people, but sometimes I feel like she doesn't realize how much pressure I'm under.

Do you worry about me taking on so much? Like I do take college practice, I have assignments to turn in every Wednesday, and also I do have to do a lot of stuff with the twins too, and I still have to be turning in work for eight classes, and still have to find new schools for college, and SAT as well. Do you worry about me taking on a lot?

Olu:

Sarah, I really worry about you.

Sarah Ali Brown:

She's holding my hand. She rarely does that. She's talking to me. She tells me she's really worried about me, that she still sees me as her baby, and that it's her job to take care of me, too.

Olu:

I'm your mother. If I tell you, do this, I'm not going to push you to something no good, like something bad.

Sarah Ali Brown:

But she's also, like me and Emanuel, unapologetic. She tells me that this is good for me. In her way, she's teaching me about life.

Olu:

I have to make sure you learn. So, that's the only thing I worry about you.

Sarah Ali Brown:

And when I tell you my mom is amazing, and for her to go to work from 11:00 at night, come back 7:30 and then go to her morning job at 9:00, still cooking for us and doing so much amazing things, and when I make it and get where I'm supposed to be, I'm going to give it all to her because she gave her all to me.

So, we're all just waiting for her to go to work, getting ready for bed.

Emanuel:

What are you doing?

Sarah Ali Brown:

Bye, Mama.

Emanuel:

It's unnecessary to record it!

Sarah Ali Brown:

Right after the house got quiet, I opened my email to some news. I had my phone, and I recorded it.

So, I just got news that I did not make it into Chicago Scholars. So, yeah. I was crying, like bawling my eyes out, heartbroken, man, because this is my future. I made it into the second round. I was the best person I could be. So, what I'm going to do, what I'm going to show Chicago Scholars is like, this is why they should have picked me. This is what they're missing out on. If it wasn't for the Coronavirus, they would have known. It's like, a real interview in person, I guarantee I would have made it in. But it's okay. It's all part of God's plan. Yeah. So, you're missing out on an amazing girl with great ideas, that's open to the world, a critical thinker. You're missing out on so much. And that's just their loss.

Al Letson:

Sarah Ali Brown's story was produced by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. Special thanks to reporter Kalyn Belsha of Chalkbeat who first wrote about Sarah.

It turns out that Sarah's charter school is closing next month and won't reopen, so she'll have to start her senior year at a new school. There is a bright spot, thought. After the Chalkbeat story came out, an elite private school offered Sarah admission, and she accepted.

We're also releasing Sarah's story as a comic, as part of a series we're calling In/Vulnerable. It's all about inequity in the time of pandemic. We're partnering with the online publication the Nib, and artist Thi Bui. New episodes are rolling out every Monday on our Instagram feed. You can find us on Instagram @RevealNews.

The school closures came without warning.

Michelle Sandov...:

It was the most uneasy moment I've had in education, by far.

Al Letson:

One teacher who's trying to hold it all together for her students. That's next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

This is what it sounded like at Parkland Middle School in El Paso, Texas earlier this year. Students and teachers line a long hallway, cheering as their classmates go by. It was a rally celebrating the time they've spent together.

Michelle Sandov...:

How many days have we been in school, guys?

Students:

100!

Al Letson:

That's Michelle Sandoval-Viegas. She teaches eighth-grade math. Last year, she was named Texas middle school and high school teacher of the year, but now her classroom is the laptop on her kitchen table.

Michelle Sandov...:

What's the favorite snack right now, like quarantine snack?

Students:

Bagels.

Michelle Sandov...:

Hi, Nadia. You've got to unmute yourself. Hey, hey.

Al Letson:

Michelle's school is in northeast El Paso. 86% of students are Hispanic. 82% are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and they face a lot of economic and social challenges.

Michelle Sandov...:

A lot of these students learn how to grow up fast. They know how to handle things that even as an adult, I haven't even gone through.

Al Letson:

Many of her students' parents are essential workers who still have to leave the house every day. Others have been laid off, and some of her students are US citizens who live in Juarez, Mexico and cross the border every day for school. When we sat down to talk over video conference, Michelle took me back to the day she learned her school was closing.

Michelle Sandov...:

March 13th was the day that really, we found out that we were going on extended spring break. The students let out at 4:00, and about 4:05 we get a call on the intercom saying all teachers must take items home to do distance learning. And so, usually the last day when we let out, teachers are so happy, like yeah, we made it, woo hoo! Like super happy.

If I could describe the feeling in the hallway, it was just pure solemn, very cold, eerie feeling, because all the teachers are packing up our portable carts. It was the most uneasy moment I've had in education, by far. This was a moment that I think I'm going to remember forever, and it probably changed me as an educator, knowing that everything can be taken away in an instant.

Walking to my car wasn't the same happy feeling. It was like, I should have hugged my students a little tighter. I should have told them to do great things. I should have told them that they're going to be successful in high school. I should have just done so many more things, if I would have known.

Al Letson:

Yeah. So, walk me through what you and your school did in those first days and weeks to try and provide for your students.

Michelle Sandov...:

At that point, all we wanted to do was wellness checks. We just wanted to make sure that they were okay. And we'd just say, hey, how are you doing today? How's your family? Is everything okay? Do you guys have food? Is your electricity on, your utilities are going? And those oftentimes were some of my really hardest conversations, because some of my students were very open and said, both of my parents lost their jobs.

I felt that it was my job to do whatever it takes for my students, whether that being staying on the phone with internet services for two hours, or translating the unemployment application for the students. The needs have completely changed, because now we're not just worrying about their education, we're worrying about if they have food on their dinner table, and if they have water to shower, or if they have electricity to be able to even do anything in their houses in the evening.

Al Letson:

What about the digital divide? How are you getting past that, because I'm sure internet access can be an issue. Technology can be an issue. How are you bridging that gap?

Michelle Sandov...:

For the most part, a lot of our children are using a cell phone, but a cell phone doesn't suffice to some of the activities that are being sent digitally. Here, locally, we have a network called Spectrum that said that they would provide free internet for students, and I'm like great, so I sent this information out to my parents. And then I started getting feedback from parents saying, well, it's not 100% free. We have to pay an $80-100 set up fee. And I said, well, that isn't free, so let me get to the bottom of it.

I spent about two hours on the phone with Spectrum, and it was all because they didn't use a specific offer. So, as soon as I found that out, I sent it out to my parents, and sure enough, the parents were able to get internet after that.

Al Letson:

Yeah. You have some students that cross the border from Mexico and come to your school for their education. What's changed for them?

Michelle Sandov...:

So, these are my kiddos that I worry about a lot. Right now, the borders are closed. And so, now the accessibility to internet is definitely more difficult in Juarez, Mexico, and for some, I don't hear from them for about a week or two, and then I'll hear from them maybe in a third week, and then have to get them caught up.

In the beginning of distance learning, I was very emotional at night, just crying and crying, wondering about them, and wondering if they're okay, and wondering if they have what they need.

Al Letson:

Yeah. So, in your classroom, you have tools that are available to you and to the students to kind of help them grasp the concepts that you're trying to teach them, but now you've been robbed of all of that. So, how are you able to teach them complex things when you're not right there with them, or you can't hand them something that they can physically move with their hands and understand the equations that you're doing?

Michelle Sandov...:

I've gotten very creative. We've gotten to the point of using hot Cheetos to create equation models. We've used candy. If I have to create a model with different items in our house, I say, go get forks, spoons, whatever, napkins, and we're going to create this model. Tear some in half, have some in full, and we're going to say 2x + 50 = 40x - 7, and we do with what we can, being innovative. If they don't have pencils and they tell me, I don't have pencils, I mail them pencils. They don't have paper, I mail them paper, just to make sure they have what they need.

Al Letson:

Before the school closed, Michelle's classroom was a bright spot full of music and colors. She says it was like a rainbow threw up inside. She worked hard to build the strong sense of school culture. But when the Coronavirus hit, she had to adapt.

Michelle Sandov...:

When distance learning first started, I really hit a block in my teaching, and I said, how am I going to be able to do this, to bring the same atmosphere that I had in my classroom, to bring it to a computer screen? So, the loud music hasn't stopped. The corny jokes haven't stopped. The smile and the air fist bumps have not stopped.

On Tuesdays, we have tutoring for the students, but I noticed that the students weren't jumping on for tutoring, they were jumping on just to say hello. You would have never thought that middle school students would have ever said, I miss school. Those words, the three words, I miss school, would have never come out of middle school students.

And to me, that filled my heart, and so I knew something was missing, so what I did is I started a social hour, a weekly social hour. It's just a place for us to connect, talk about Netflix, video games, even though I know nothing about video games. We talk about families. We meet pets. I'm a big pet person, so I'm like, bring the pets on screen! And that started to build my culture back up, even from a distance. My first social hour was about 10 students, and then it grew to about 25, and then it grew all the way, my biggest one was about 70-some students.

Other than that, I'm sending out Uber Eats dinners to students who are doing a great job, or I'll send a Domino's family dinner for families that I know are in need of it and it would be a wonderful surprise for them.

Al Letson:

Eventually, Michelle started mailing out care packages.

Michelle Sandov...:

Different things in the care packages. It had Lifesavers, pencils, crayons. I knew this started to hurt my pocket a little bit, so I started to create Amazon wishlists, and I had a tremendous response to this, and then I started getting local businesses to donate gift cards, little coupons for them to get a free ice cream or a free hamburger.

So then, my idea of only sending out 20, 30 care packages turned into sending out more than 100-something care packages. And so, for a child, it just really gave them a fresh outlook on distance learning, saying hey, my teacher's still there, she still loves me and cares about me.

Al Letson:

What did your counter look like when you're putting these packages together?

Michelle Sandov...:

Oh my god. Right now, my kitchen table is full of just the manila, the bubble packaging. We have just envelopes everywhere. I've had anonymous donors send me postage, so this has really blossomed into a big project, and I think society right now doesn't realize how beautifully and gracefully teachers have done this. We went from classroom to full in, headfirst, 100 miles an hour to distance learning, and they have done it without hesitation and done it gracefully and beautifully, and I really have to just thank teachers all around the world, because they are filling a void that the children have right now.

Al Letson:

Michelle Sandoval-Viegas, I appreciate you so very much. Thank you for the work that you and your fellow teachers are doing.

Michelle Sandov...:

Thank you so much. It really meant a lot to kind of share my story and the story of my students.

Al Letson:

Michelle Sandoval-Viegas is a math teacher at Parkland Middle School in El Paso, Texas. Thank you.

Michelle Sandov...:

Thank you.

Al Letson:

That story was produced by Reveal's Patrick Michels.

And our final stop today ...

Ginger Cook:

Good morning, third-graders!

Al Letson:

Is Ginger Cook's third-grade class at Acorn Woodland Elementary School in Oakland, California.

Ginger Cook:

We've been so excited by what we've been reading in your journals this week, and I'm really excited to share our topic for today. What is the best thing about sheltering in place, and what is the worst thing about sheltering in place?

Speaker 22:

My name is [inaudible]. The best thing about sheltering in place is that my dad and my brother and me can see each other more. The worst thing about sheltering in place is that I cannot see the rest of my family in person.

Ginger Cook:

We've talked a lot about the fact that they are in a really historic time, and the more they can capture now, the easier it will be for them to remember and be able to share those stories.

Estella:

My name is Estella. My mom is a healthcare provider. She is still working through these difficult times, and because of that our family doesn't need anything at this moment. Thankfully, we have enough food to get us through this crisis. The best thing about sheltering in place is not many people are around me, because we all know that none of us want the virus, right? The worst thing about sheltering in place is you can't go anywhere and you can't have fun, because there's nothing to do, just homework!

Ginger Cook:

The hardest part for me is that I'm used to being around third-graders, and third-graders give hugs like nobody else. They're a really special bunch, and to see them online is one thing, and I love that they're all with us every morning, but it's just not the same. There's such a connection among them and with us that we miss a lot.

Speaker 24:

My name is [inaudible]. We live in a small house, which sometimes it's hard for each of us to focus on our homeschool. My favorite time of the day is the end of doing homeschool and starting doing activities or playing with pets. One interesting moment I had was planting seeds for tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, jalapenos and habanero peppers. That was fun and I can't wait to see them grow and eat them.

Abdullah:

My name is Abdullah. The worst thing is that the place is crowded with people and a small place, and my sister, brother, mom and dad need space.

Ginger Cook:

I think especially in elementary school, it's so important that we take a step back and we don't put too much pressure on ourselves as parents, as teachers, as kids, in this moment that none of us have ever experienced anything like.

Martin:

My name is Martin. I'm sheltering in place with five people. On Tuesday, we went to Target. We were all wearing masks to go inside, and we were six feet away from people we didn't know.

Ginger Cook:

We talked a lot before we left school about how important it was going to be to flatten the curve, and that that's not just something that people out there do, that's what we all do. And that means that we're not running around with our friends in the yard, and we're not going to the store every moment we can. And I feel like they have some sense of agency, that they have a part to play, and that they are doing that part for their families and for our community as a whole.

Judith:

I am Judith. I am sheltering in place with my mom, Sandra, my dad, Sergio, big brother, Danny, my medium brother, Jose, and my little sister, Kayla. I think my parents need to have a break from work, because they work all week and Saturday. It is not fair. They work so hard to get us food and water from the store. They need to have a break and relax.

Ginger Cook:

When I first introduced the idea of writing journals to the kids, I said, it's really important that your voice is heard, and your voice matters, and your experience is not like anyone else's, and I'm just grateful that they had a chance to share that with you today.

Al Letson:

Many thanks to third-grade teacher Ginger Cook and her students at Acorn Woodland Elementary School in Oakland, California for sharing their stories with us today.

Now that schools have moved online, tech companies are offering all kinds of education apps for kids to use. But how good are they? And are you worried about privacy? We're reporting on this along with Chalkbeat over the next couple months, and we want to hear from parents. You can share stories with us by texting the word education to 474747. Again, text the word education to 474747. You can text stop at any time, and standard rates apply.

This week's show was produced by Patrick Michels, Michael I Schiller and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. Brett Myers edited the show, with additional editing from Esther Kaplan.

Today's show was in partnership with the education newsroom Chalkbeat. Thanks to their staff, Sarah Darville, Kalyn Belsha, Reema Amin, Dylan Peers McCoy, Christina Veiga, Yesenia Robles and Eric Gorski. Thanks also to all the educators who helped us with the show, including Dr. Antonella Vitale, Christina Beecher and Israt Nali. And thanks to Reveal collaborations director Sumi Aggarwal.

Original score and sound design by that dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando my man Arruda. We had help this week from Claire C-note Mullen. Our theme music is by Camarado - Lightning.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Johnathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Siemens Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, the only way we get through this is together.

Speaker 28:

From PRX.