“Turn on your camera!” How online learning has highlighted education gaps in Baltimore City

By Marie Marcelino, CFCC Student Fellow (2020-2021)

It has been a full year since Covid-19 has hit and has forced the world to shut down and go into lockdown. Many people have tried to continue to live their lives as normally as possible, but the reality is that this event is a true test of all our abilities to adapt. Schools in particular have made difficult decisions about how to continue to provide a quality education to their students, and the standout decision has included providing technology to students so that they can learn virtually. Although this is not the traditional way of teaching, it has proven to be a truly innovative way of providing an education to students. Many have had high hopes about the switch to online learning. They have anticipated that students could obtain a quality education during the pandemic. While this has been the case in some schools, working collaboratively with CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) has highlighted the difficulties of online learning, calling into question whether some Baltimore City students have received an adequate education.

I have worked with the TCP team for two semesters. My experience has highlighted the educational gaps that may exist at inner city public schools, such as the ones in Baltimore City. Many students in Baltimore City have struggled to receive an adequate education since the transition to online learning. Parents of TCP participants have told us that the Wi-Fi at their homes at times does not work well, so their children cannot get online for class. One TCP student has explained that her school-provided Chromebook has not worked for over two weeks. Students themselves have explained that it is entirely too difficult to focus at home because they have other siblings and family members interacting with them during class. Some have also expressed that they have developed bad sleeping schedules during the pandemic that cause them to fall asleep during their classes. There are also many students who choose to have their cameras off during class, whether it is because there is too much activity going on in the background, because the students are not comfortable with the camera on, or because they are simply distracted. Whatever the reason may be, not being able to see students and their faces during online learning has made it difficult to interact and engage with them. These are just some of the obstacles that students and their parents have faced during online learning. Some students and parents are barely managing this process. While I believe that online learning is an innovative way to provide students an education, it is neither a perfect nor an adequate way to provide students with the education to which they are entitled. The factors that cause online learning to be a difficult experience highlight the educational gaps that already exist in Baltimore City.

When I join a TCP meeting, I am reminded about my experience growing up in public school. I think back to my eighth-grade experience, knowing then that I would attend the high school down the street from my house, just as the majority of my classmates would. Baltimore City in particular has implemented a system by which students need to apply to certain high schools. During the TCP sessions, we often discuss with Baltimore City students what high schools they want to attend, typically beginning in sixth grade. Some high schools specialize in the arts, such as Baltimore School for the Arts and the Baltimore Design School. These schools require an audition and/or portfolio submission as part of the application process. Not all of the high schools that require an application, however, are specialized. Some just require that a student meet the academic entrance criteria for that school. I find this system to be interesting, as it is completely different from my experience in a public school.

Although there are particular schools that require an application, I wonder about the quality of education at the schools that do not require one. What sort of pressure does this application process inflict on students and parents? What happens when students are not accepted to the school of their choice? What if the high school they finally attend does not meet their needs and desires? Interestingly enough, there are instances where a student who has applied to various schools does not get admitted to any of them. They are then forced to attend a school that simply has room for the student.

Baltimore City’s system for high school placement is an interesting and unique one. The experience from online learning has shown that many students have struggled with this process. And although there are those who acknowledge the issues associated with online learning, the bottom line is that when the world goes back to normal, the grades, performance levels, and attendance of these students will have consequence to them, largely because they still have to continue to compete for the education they need. The application process for high schools is not halted because of online learning. Some schools are still using academic entrance criteria to determine which students they want to admit to their schools.

This last year has forced us all to look back, to reflect, and to understand what is and what is not working for students and families. A lot of the issues that involve the quality and educational needs of students are preexisting issues that have developed in Baltimore City for many years. Online learning in the last year has just shed a greater light on these educational gaps. Moving forward, I hope we do not attempt to disregard some of the problems we have seen. Rather, I hope we learn from this experience so we can continue to offer all children the education they deserve.

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