Photo: First-grade student

New Program Lessens the Burden of Remote Learning for Some Sarasota Families

Posted on December 07, 2020 by Louis Llovio, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Editor's Note: This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.

Kenyatta Carter is a single mother with six school-age children. As the school year approached and with the uncertainties of the pandemic, she wanted to keep her children at home. But how?

Who was going to take care of them while she worked all day? How could she buy five more computers? How would the children get their work done while fighting over a limited amount of internet bandwidth?

Carter got a lifeline from a new program from the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County and Girls Inc. called Remote Learning Support, which allows parents who chose e-learning to drop off students in the morning.

The students spend their day working in a classroom space that is safe and meets CDC guidelines. With them are adults who can fix technical issues and help them with their school work.

"I can't tell you how much stress it's taken off of me," Carter said. "If I had all of them trying to do the e-learning at home, there was no way the Wi-Fi could have handled the capacity of what they needed to do."

She sent her three oldest children to school and placed the three youngest – 7-year-old twins Jaiyda and Jaiyden and 10-year-old Andre – in the Boys & Girls Club program at its Newton center.

Carter is one of the lucky ones.

Many families are unable to participate in distance learning because they lack the technology needed. While school districts have helped by providing laptops, internet access remains an issue – especially for families with several children who need to get online.

Bill Sadlo, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, says that even before the pandemic, the students they worked with often didn't have access to technology, including the internet outside of school or the Boys & Girls Club.

"Them having to be at home now and working on their virtual platform without having access to that, we thought this (program) would be a great service to them," he said. "It's been a longstanding problem, and we're happy that the kids can come, and we can alleviate that problem for the parents."

John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, wrote in a 2019 study that "the lack of access to information may reinforce challenging circumstances for asset-limited people – researchers describe this as a bandwidth tax."

In the study – "Reaching the Unconnected," – Horrigan writes that people are more focused on paying for rent and food, while internet access is a secondary concern. The problem, he writes, is the lack of an internet connection means they don't have access to online tools that could make life easier.

"Internet access by itself will not alleviate the bandwidth tax," Horrigan writes, "but by opening doors to information and giving people a tool to manage their time better, it may ease its burden."

This is true now when a lack of reliable high-speed internet means children lose out on the option of remote learning. Even if they do take that route, they might not be able to keep up with their peers.

As of Thursday, 12,476 students from Manatee County are e-learning, and 10,794 Sarasota County students go to school online.

A program like Remote Learning Support goes a long way toward easing parents' concerns and closing the technology gap, Sadlo said.

The Boys & Girls Club is operating the program at its six area centers. They have space for a total of 252 students, ages 6 to 18. There are 85 currently enrolled.

Ella Lewis, director of advancement for Girls Inc., said about a dozen girls are enrolled in the program for girls 6 to 12 and are attending sessions at its center on S. Tuttle Avenue in Sarasota.

The majority of girls attending are in elementary school, she said. In most cases, these are girls whose parents don't feel comfortable sending them to schools and don't have the option to keep them at home.

"What we are finding is that they need a lot of support. It's not like they can sit around the computer by themselves and navigate this remote learning," Lewis said.

"We're able to help families in that way, by providing a reliable place for the girl to learn while the parents or caregivers go to work, and know she's safe and getting a hot meal for lunch and having her academic needs met."

For Carter, the program has not only eased some of the anxiety she felt sending all six of her children to school, but it's lessened the burden at home.

Her three children, who are in the program, come home with their work done. While that leaves the other three having to share time for the one laptop the family owns, it is far better than she feared.

"When this whole COVID thing came about in March, I was lucky enough to be able to go out and buy one single laptop out of my own pocket to get the kids access to whatever it is they may have needed," she said.

"We kind of have to take turns in the afternoon if they all have homework, but it's so much easier if you only have three that need to do homework on the laptop than if you have six. That's half the trouble. Literally."

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