Strong Gains Reported for Distance Learning in Low-Performing Districts Across Connecticut

Survey of teachers raises questions about progress

One month into the fall semester, school officials report significant improvements in participation rates among public school students in disadvantaged districts enrolled in distance learning.

Compared to this spring, when makeshift measures to resume education online lost about 70 percent students in New Haven, the state’s largest school district, during the last week of September reportedly just 6 percent of students learning remotely across Connecticut failed to participate in classes.

These numbers are part of an effort by the state Department of Education to more closely monitor Connecticut’s 170 public school districts, in response to concerns that statewide efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 had deepened educational divides between richer and poorer youth.

In spring 2020, 1 in 4 public school students in Connecticut failed to participate in online instruction.

Participation, what state officials call “connecting,” is counted for students who simply log in to an online meeting or class. To be counted as “disconnected,” a student has failed to connect even once over the course of a school week.

Students are marked “present” for attending classroom instruction or for participating in remote education for at least three and a half hours in a day.

Each week, the Department of Education asks each district to report for every grade:

  • total enrollment
  • whether instruction is conducted in-person, hybrid or remote
  • percent of students that have opted for full remote learning
  • number of remote students who are “disconnected”

Data on disconnection is all self reported by teachers and school administrators to the state.

15 districts

Fifteen districts reported student enrollment in remote learning at or exceeding 40 percent — including 5 districts that have opted to hold classes entirely online — despite rates of infection that have consistently met state guidelines for allowing classroom instruction.

Across Connecticut, 31.8 percent of public school students are enrolled in remote education — and do not participate in classroom instruction — either by personal choice or because of a decision made on the district level.

The majority of these districts report a decline in the number of disconnected students since the start of the fall semester — including New Haven, which began the school year with 19 percent of students identified as disconnected.

Bridgeport, Meriden, New London, and Norwich — after week 2 numbers exceeded a 60 percent failure to participate — all followed a similar pattern of improving numbers.

Of those 15 districts, six are identified as Opportunity Districts — among the 10 lowest-performing school districts in the state. These districts also reported the highest percentage of disconnected students in the spring.

But after expressing concerns that these students would suffer disproportionately this fall — without personal computers, adequate internet access, or stable home environments — if opportunity districts adopted remote learning models for the fall, instead state and local officials say they are encouraged by reports of improved participation rates.

A Survey of teachers

In contrast, a recent survey conducted by the Connecticut Education Association — a member organization of public school teachers that lobbies on school issues — suggests that this optimism may not be shared by a large number of public school teachers.

According to numbers compiled from a recent CEA survey of 2,000 teachers on school equity, 61 percent of teachers in Opportunity Districts, and the larger set of underperforming Alliance Districts, reported no effective strategies being implemented to engage students who are absent or disconnected.

“More than half of Alliance District teachers are not receiving the services and supplies for distance learning that enable them to perform their jobs efficiently … and nearly half of Alliance District teachers say students don’t have the school resources and supplies that ensure they can fully access the curriculum,” the survey reported. 

More than a quarter of Alliance District teachers reported that their students lacked computers and a third reported that their students lacked adequate access to the internet. 

Both New Haven and Hartford School Districts declined to comment on the differences between district-reported data and the CEA survey of teachers.

The problem of connectivity

A lack of adequate internet access is not just a problem for urban and underperforming districts. In rural northwest Connecticut, several districts also report significant challenges to providing instruction to remote learners.

In July, Gov. Ned Lamont earmarked $43.5 million of emergency federal funding under the CARES Act to help improve student connectivity and make remote learning possible. This included $15 million to improve home internet connectivity for 60,000 students and $4.5 million to add 200 public WiFi hot spots across the state.

Some rural districts continue to struggle. 

Torrington School District currently has 30 percent of their students participating in remote learning. Of that group, between 43 and 32 percent were disconnected during the first month. 

Regional School District No. 1 – the largest district by area in the state, serving the towns of Canaan, Cornwall, Kent, North Canaan, Salisbury, and Sharon — reported that 19 percent of students were learning remotely and between 8 and 13 percent of those students were unable to adequately connect.

In the Connecticut River Valley – including Regional School District 4, serving the towns of Essex, Deep River and Chester — more than 15 percent of students enrolled in remote learning were disconnected during the last week of September. 

In contrast to reported improvements in disadvantaged schools, Region 4 reported an increase from 10 percent to 18 percent in disconnected students enrolled in remote learning. Other districts in the region, including Groton and Lyme-Old Lyme reported higher numbers of disconnected students at the end of September.

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