Salem-Keizer students report little social contact or academic challenge during two months of distance learning

Judson Middle School students in a seventh grade language arts on Oct. 30, 2018. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Thousands of Salem-Keizer students struggled with a hasty switch to remote classes this spring, with most saying classes weren’t academically challenging and fewer than half reporting an adult could regularly help them with schoolwork.

That’s one finding from a school district survey of more than 14,000 students, parents and employees to assess two months of mostly online schooling. The results will guide district planning for classes in the fall, which will likely be a hybrid of remote or online instruction and in-school classes for most of Salem-Keizer’s 41,000 students.

DOCUMENT: Salem-Keizer distance learning survey results

The survey found many parents and students gave teachers high marks for their efforts to reach out, but a host of challenges, including responsibilities to care for siblings, limited instruction time, poor internet access, boredom and life stresses posed problems for those who responded.

Students in special education and English language learning programs were especially likely to report challenges accessing class materials, receiving needed academic help from adults or feeling they could complete their assigned work. Pacific Islander and Latino students also struggled more, sometimes because of language or technology barriers for adults in the home.

Salem-Keizer also chose to focus on “care and connection” with students over academic rigor, assistant superintendent Kraig Sproles said. Survey results show the district performed better on questions about social and emotional health, with most students reporting they had trusted adults they could talk to both in and outside of school.

That choice was made in part due to state rules saying classes must be offered pass/fail and students should not be academically penalized for failing to engage in coursework.

Students at all grade levels reported frequently feeling positive emotions during the closure, like gratitude, and more than 80% said they felt safe and loved.

Still, the survey shows students, families and employees struggled with stress and other negative emotions. Middle and high school students in particular reported feeling frequently bored, and were less engaged in school than their elementary school peers.

A majority of students across all grade levels reported they had little or no daily social contact with friends from school.

Teachers and other educators also struggled, with about one in three reporting they felt frustrated, worried and stressed most or all of the time. More than half were caring for their own children at home while teaching, and about one third said they spent three or more hours a day helping their own kids with schoolwork.

Just 11% said they were confident they could adequately help students who needed the most academic support during distance learning.

Students did find bright spots, with some reporting in free-response questions they’d discovered new skills or deepened connections with family members. Others were less sanguine.

“My ‘new’ teacher (mom) keeps giving me detention, and tells me she’s trying to find a substitute teacher all the time,” one elementary school student wrote in response to a question about current worries.

Sproles, who’s leading the planning process for school in the fall, said the survey makes it clear the district needs to do more to support parents at home and make classes more challenging.

“For our distance learning in the fall, we will need to continue maintaining strong relationships with students while increasing academic rigor and accelerating learning,” he said in an email.

SUPPORT ESSENTIAL REPORTING FOR SALEM – A subscription starts at $5 a month for around-the-clock access to stories and email alerts sent directly to you. Your support matters. Go HERE.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.