LA PINE — Only a half-hour’s drive from million-dollar mansions in west Bend, the Smith family lives in two RVs on a dry forested patch of land off of U.S. Highway 97 outside the rural town of La Pine.

Children who live in both places deserve an equal shot at remote learning this fall. Educators in the Bend-La Pine School District, which has gaping socioeconomic differences, say they are working hard to make an equitable experience for all. Still, they worry about language barriers, spotty internet connections and students with disabilities who relied on the everyday routine of school.

Patricia Smith, along with her husband and daughter, look after her four grandchildren who attend the K-8 Three Rivers School in Sunriver. Everything, from the worn-out RVs to the outdoor couch to the children’s clothes, is covered in a layer of dust. There are a few pets — including a feisty border collie puppy named Tequila and two kittens named Marilyn and Monroe — hanging around as well.

Despite their isolated, no-frills home, the four Smith children were able to virtually attend online classes this spring with few glitches using several internet hotspots the school provided. That solution isn’t perfect — Patricia Smith quipped that they lose internet when it gets cloudy — but she still expressed optimism that her grandkids will have a successful fall in school.

“The internet’s not always great, but we’ll do okay,” said Smith. “We’ll figure it out.”

The Smiths are one of many families in the sprawling Bend-La Pine school district who struggle with internet access and other barriers to distance learning. The district covers 1,600 square miles of land and taught more than 18,600 students last school year.

In the same district as families who drive shiny Range Rover SUVs, own closets filled with Patagonia gear and live in spacious seven-figure homes in Bend neighborhoods like Awbrey Butte, Broken Top and Tetherow, some families in south Deschutes County live in deep rural poverty, with spotty or no internet access or cell service, making online learning nearly impossible.

The district is also home to immigrant families who not only face a language barrier with online learning but also feel fearful and unwelcomed after ICE agents took two Mexican-born Bend residents away from their families this summer.

And regardless of their family’s socioeconomic or immigration status, some students with learning disabilities struggled with learning through a computer screen this spring.

Distance learning, mandated by the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19, exacerbates educational hurdles that already existed for these students. So Bend-La Pine leaders have cooked up plans — from potential partnerships with La Pine’s park district to provide wifi to simplifying the online learning system to make things easier for students with disabilities — to ensure all students have an equitable, or at least less painfully inequitable, distance learning experience.

INTERNET CONCERNS IN LA PINE

The biggest roadblock to remote learning in parts of south Deschutes County is internet and cell connection, according to La Pine Middle School staff. Principal Matt Montgomery, who is also the south county director for Bend-La Pine Schools, doesn’t know the exact number of students in the area without internet access, but he knows it’s a common barrier for families.

Jennifer McGee, who teaches eighth-grade math and electives at La Pine Middle, said connectivity is particularly an issue for families who live far from La Pine’s city limits.

“We have kids specifically that are off the grid,” she said. “You don’t have electricity, much less cell service of any sort.”

Bend-La Pine staff gave internet hotspots to many families across Bend, Sunriver and La Pine in the spring. But those don’t work if a family doesn’t have cell service, Montgomery said.

To make sure these families are connected to online school — which will be particularly important this fall, as attendance will be mandatory — staff in La Pine’s four schools have come up with some strategies.

First, teachers will reach out to all their students before the school year starts and find out exactly what barriers need to be broken, Montgomery said. If a family has no cell service or internet connection, those students might be able to take school district transportation to the La Pine Park & Recreation building, where wifi will be provided, he said. The two public entities are still discussing those plans, according to Montgomery.

Schools in Marion and Polk counties are taking similar approaches. The Salem-Keizer School District is continuing a partnership with Comcast this fall to offer free Internet service to families who don’t have it at home. Polk County is using much of its federal pandemic funding to expand rural broadband access so families can connect with school, doctors and other necessities from home.

In the spring, La Pine Middle School teachers met twice a day to discuss how to best connect with students and created 25-student cohorts for each teacher to check in with, said McGee and sixth-grade teacher Dawn Grady. The teachers plan to keep doing that, but they will also do more to check on students who have had difficulty engaging, so they can receive extra attention, they said.

There’s one issue that could crop up for every student in the La Pine area, regardless of whether they have internet access: bandwidth. If every student and teacher, as well as local adults working remotely, try to access the internet at the same time, everyone’s connectivity could grind to a halt, the teachers said.

“At my house … if too many people on my street are using the internet, our bandwidth goes down,” McGee said. “And we’re expecting kids to do video conferencing.”

Local parent Andi Rojo, whose four children who will attend La Pine-area schools this fall, had a similar concern.

“If everything’s online, and (the internet) goes out, there’s no school,” Rojo said. “They’re just sitting and waiting.”

English language learners face extra barrier

As recently as the 2018-19 school year, 8% of Bend-La Pine students had been English language learners at some point in their schooling, according to state data. And last school year, 35 different languages were spoken in students’ homes, from Korean to Spanish to Vietnamese, according to Kinsey Martin, director of Bend-La Pine’s English language learner and dual-language programs.

Because of this wide array, there are very few concerns that impact all students with home languages other than English, Martin said. But regardless of their native language or socioeconomic status, the language barrier was a common problem with distance learning this spring.

In particular, translating online learning platforms into 35 languages, particularly the less common ones, was difficult, Martin said. Quickly releasing COVID-19 updates in English to families is a challenge, but translating these messages was even more challenging and delayed outreach to families, she said.

“When a teacher would send a message and say, ‘Hey, here’s our schedule,’ they would send that through a translator,” Martin said. “But that takes time, so English-speaking families might receive the message (immediately), while other families were waiting.”

School staff have some strategies to ease the technological language barrier this fall, Martin said. The district dramatically narrowed the list of educational apps and online platforms being used this fall and made sure to pick ones that parents or guardians can easily translate into a variety of languages. The district has also purchased new, faster and more accurate translation technology, she said.

Bend-La Pine staffers occasionally conducted bilingual lessons and sent messages over video, rather than in an email, this spring. Martin said that was a more effective way to communicate than sending written documents, and district staff plan to send more videos this fall.

“One thing we’ve heard is that it helps to see a face with the message and not just a random email,” she said.

For bilingual students in low socioeconomic households, and those who are specifically Latino, there are added concerns, said Rebecca Easton, an English language learner teacher at Silver Rail Elementary School in southeast Bend.

When ICE agents detained two Mexican-born Bend residents in August, some Latino families Easton works with became fearful, which could make them uneasy about connecting with school district staff, she said. Many of her families have also been hit hard by COVID-19, as some parents are essential workers who caught the virus, Easton said.

“There’s the fear of the virus and now there’s this added fear of deportation (and) not feeling safe, not feeling welcome,” Easton said. “That’s always been part of that community’s experience.”

Some families Easton worked with this spring also had no internet or a bad connection. That makes it difficult to teach kids a new language, she said.

“I’m a language teacher, so students have to be able to talk and have good audio,” Easton said.

Both Easton and Martin said maintaining relationships is key to connecting with bilingual families and ensuring students’ success during distance learning. Having consistent conversations and providing help — Easton gives some of her students’ families food and rent money, with the help of local nonprofits — builds trust and eases families’ concerns, they said.

“I’m in touch regularly with families, and I built relationships with them over time,” said Easton, who’s taught at Silver Rail for six years. “If that trust wasn’t there before, it would be harder.”

Simplifying the system for students with disabilities

Students with learning disabilities rely on routine to learn, said Aubrie Murray, a special education teacher at William E. Miller Elementary School in northwest Bend. So when COVID-19 forced students into online learning this spring, it was a challenge for many of Murray’s students.

“Not only were (school) routines completely abandoned for them, they then had to learn how to use technologies that they hadn’t been exposed to before,” she said.

More than 1,820 Bend-La Pine students were enrolled in special education classes during the 2018-19 school year.

Murray and other Bend-La Pine special education leaders are hopeful these students will have a more successful and less complicated experience with distance learning this fall. Two of the biggest differences are more time for teacher planning and a significantly simplified online learning platform, said Sean Reinhart, the district’s executive director of special programs.

In the spring, online learning platforms varied from teacher to teacher. But starting this fall, Bend-La Pine will have a unified system, with each student only using one system, depending on their grade level, Reinhart said. This will make for a less complex experience not just for students with disabilities but their parents and guardians as well, he said.

“A lot of the onus goes on the parents to facilitate the learning,” Reinhart said. “This will help that process and help the student be more familiar with the work.”

Teachers also learned how to use new online tools this summer, Murray said.

In Bend-La Pine, students with disabilities are primarily considered general-education students, said KayAnn Well, a district coach for middle and high school special education teachers. So teachers will have to figure out how to keep them engaged during non-special education remote classes, where they have sometimes felt lost, she said.

“Students who have a disability are not likely to be vocal or raise their hand on the internet,” Well said. “They were participating, but quietly participating.”

Finally, the district hopes to have some students with disabilities — as well as many other groups of students — back in classrooms in small groups for a couple hours a day some time this fall, Reinhart said. The Oregon Department of Education allows limited in-person schooling for specific groups of high-need students, but for no more than 10 at a time and only if students and staff don’t have COVID-19.

Bend-La Pine has not yet finalized details on how limited in-person schooling will look this fall, or when it might begin, Reinhart said.

Those classes could be a boon to students with who have sensory difficulties. Learning remotely was difficult for them, said Murray.

“Learning how to interact with us via a screen proved really challenging for some,” she said. “Our voices sound different, they couldn’t sense our presence, we weren’t able to give any calming touch or give some of the reassurances that we could in person.”

Jackson Hogan; [email protected]; @jacksonhogan

This story is part of a collaborative by The Bulletin, The Oregonian/OregonLive, OPB, Salem Reporter and the Ontario Argus Observer to bring Oregonians comprehensive coverage of the state’s students and public schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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