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The Hechinger Report is collaborating with The New York Times to produce Bulletin Board, page 2 of the Timess education supplement, Learning.

Sophia Joffe, a high school senior who launched a database for enriched remote learning, at her family’s home in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

Guiding high school peers through online learning maze

As the coronavirus pandemic intensified in March, Sophia Joffe’s school in Toronto nimbly transitioned to remote learning. Even so, Joffe, then an 11th grader, had trouble coping with social isolation and focusing in virtual class. 

She assumed that Canadian and American school systems would have supplemental resources for online learning, but found few, and they lacked quality and variety. “I realized that there was an opportunity sitting right in front of me,” she said. 

So Joffe created eLearn.fyi, a database of more than 300 online learning tools, including a civics curriculum founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and engineering lessons on how to build a robotic arm. Her goal was to collect enough learning resources, she said, “that students or parents would be able to find learning sites and lessons that would meet their education needs.” 

She spent $19 to host a website and contacted software companies for free licenses. It took her a few months to compile the learning resources, but once she did, students responded. By October, Joffe’s database had received over 500 unique visitors from more than 40 countries. 

Among those visitors were Joffe’s own friends and teachers, who found subject-specific tools through her site.

“It was confirmation for me that what I had done was really successful,” she said. 

And though she is proud of her achievement, Joffe wonders: Where are the adults? “Our governments need to be working in partnership with tech companies to put ‘the Netflix of online learning’ into action,” she said. “I don’t understand why that isn’t happening — now.”

CAYLA BAMBERGER


Helping Connecticut’s educators deal with this year’s stress

Shellye Davis spent the spring worried. Davis, a paraprofessional in Connecticut’s Hartford Public Schools, was concerned about students feeling isolated and not having enough food, and about colleagues confronting the dual stressors of losing family members and fearing that they’d lose their jobs.

“This is the year that everyone has gone through some sort of trauma,” Davis said.

In response, the state is offering a free, 10-hour course, “Social and Emotional Learning in Times of Uncertainty and Stress,” to everyone who works in Connecticut schools, from superintendents to bus drivers — and 20,000 people have signed up for it so far. 

The most common word educators use to describe how they’re feeling now is “anxious,” according to Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which developed and distributed the training with funding from Dalio Education. “What we wanted to be able to do is teach educators the psychology of stress, the biology of stress and evidenced-based strategies to manage stress, for themselves and for their kids,” he said.

The emphasis on helping educators cope with their own emotions appeals to Davis, who said the coronavirus pandemic has underscored how important that is. “Unless you take care of yourself, you can’t help the student,” she said.

In New Haven, where schools remain entirely remote this fall, Alysoun Kegel, a music teacher, has seen some students’ loneliness manifest itself with nonstop chattering. She’s also found it harder to engage with some of her elementary school students. When she starts an activity requiring movement, for instance, several students stay still. Over video, it’s hard to tell why.

“In a classroom, you would immediately know,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”

The training is specifically designed to be applicable to both in-person and remote learning, Brackett said. For example, it includes a tool called the “mood meter,” that helps people label and talk about their feelings. Teachers can post the meter in virtual classrooms, or even in private chats with students.

Student anxiety levels are high, Brackett said. “They’re also very frustrated. They’ve been very bored,” he said. “We really have to help get them engaged.”

SARAH BUTRYMOWICZ


Enabling single mothers to finish college

Diane Bennett and her son sit in front Moffat House at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA on September 27, 2020. CREDIT: Hannah Beier for The New York Times MISERICORDIA-bennett NYTCREDIT: Hannah Beier for The New York Times Credit: Hannah Beier for The New York Times

Diane Bennett calls the large on-campus house she lives in the “frat house.” But the gatherings she and her four housemates hold aren’t sloppy ragers so much as children’s birthday parties. And when they turn to each other for help, it’s most often for babysitting, so they can sneak in a few hours at the library.  

Bennett, 31, is in her final semester at Misericordia University, in Dallas, Pennsylvania, near Scranton. She’s also a single mother of an 11-year-old son. Three years ago, she enrolled in the university’s Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program, one of a small number of programs around the country that help single mothers finish college.

Nationally, nearly 1 in 5 female college students is a single mom, but only 28 percent graduate, according to a 2017 report. Katherine Pohlidal, who directs Misericordia’s program, said its graduation rate is 73 percent, thanks to free housing and meal plans for the women and their children, plus help accessing scholarships, an emergency fund, career counseling and other support. Last year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced funding to expand the model to other colleges in the state.

Bennett expects to graduate in December, then enroll in a master’s program to get her CPA. While the coronavirus pandemic likely precludes a big graduation ceremony, she will make sure her son sees her in cap and gown with diploma in hand. “My son is going to see me graduate and it’s going to be expected that he does the same. It’s not just first generation,” she said of the program’s impact. “It’s second generation too.”   

CAROLINE PRESTON


Crafting a degree

When she left college for spring break, Arabella Van Patten planned to spend the week on her side hustle — making ceramic mugs and flowerpots to sell around her rural Virginia hometown.

As she got ready to finish her sophomore year at James Madison University, the college announced that all classes would go online. Van Patten’s pottery suddenly became her priority, and she saw her income grow to more than $5,000 per month on the online marketplace Etsy.

Van Patten joined a group of online sellers that has swelled during the coronavirus pandemic. Etsy announced in August that it had reached a record-high 3.14 million active sellers. Total sales more than doubled, as Americans shifted spending to online retail.

Some students have launched digital storefronts for press-on nail sets or dog bandanas to replace income from on-campus jobs that have disappeared. Others, such as Sarah Salvador, a University of North Carolina pre-med student, consider Etsy a hobby. “It’s honestly a stress reliever,” said Salvador, who sews masks and hats using textiles her mother accumulated through her “fabric addiction.”

Van Patten started her business last year, but initial sales were slow. “I was thinking, ‘I did not empty out my savings account to make $12,’ ” she said. After finding success, Van Patten considered dropping out of college to focus on her shop. (She instead decided to attend part-time, and will major in business, after taking mainly hospitality courses.) “I was never totally into school,” Van Patten said. “I’m more of the entrepreneur type.”

PETE D’AMATO


White Hall on the campus of Bethune–Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Credit: Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Encouraging the vote at HBCUs

This fall, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is trying something new — a campaign offering grants of up to $2,000 to students who encourage voting at historically Black colleges and universities. Students have been creating voter education programs such as game nights and sample ballot parties for their campuses, said Chynna Baldwin, senior national coordinator for election protection at the Lawyers’ Committee.

“There are about 20 million student voters, and they vote significantly less than other populations do,” Baldwin said. “When you take that even a step further and look at the populations of HBCU students, it gets even less voter turnout.”

A Tufts University report found that between the 2012 and 2016 elections, voting turnout increased by 5.5 percentage points among white students, 7 points among Hispanic students and 7.8 points among Asian students. But Black student turnout dropped from 54.9 percent to 49.6 percent (down 5.3 percentage points). And at HBCUs the drop was even larger — from 50.5 to 39.9 percent.

“A lot of it is really more about the fact there are so many barriers,” Baldwin said, such as not knowing if they can register to vote on campus or on Election Day. “It’s definitely not the fact that young Black people are not civically engaged, or that they’re not politically inclined.”

Students from six institutions won the Lawyers’ Committee grants earlier this month: Southern University and Grambling State (Louisiana), Bethune-Cookman University (Florida), Howard University (D.C.), Wilberforce University (Ohio) and North Carolina A&T State University.

DELECE SMITH-BARROW

This story about online learning resources during the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

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