FARMINGTON, Utah — When the COVID-19 pandemic closed Utah schools in March, life changed for most families. Work for parents and school for their children suddenly collided at home.
“That was a huge, huge struggle, is trying to figure out how do you do this? Because the online learning had to be supplemented somehow,” said Carol Labrum, a Farmington mother of three. “We are fortunate enough to have access to Wi-Fi and even that wasn’t functioning at 100%. It made us want to pull our hair out.”
For Labrum’s oldest son Donovan, getting good grades feels a little like playing your favorite video game.
“So, you can lose points for like, being rude to other classmates,” said the fifth grader.
“The kids have avatars and they move through different worlds. It kind of looks like ‘World of Warcraft,’” Labrum said, describing the “Class Craft” software her son used for school.
Donovan, 10, attends Spectrum, the gifted program at Burton Elementary School in Kaysville.
Labrum said it lends itself to distance learning.
“When COVID came around, it was a pretty seamless transition because they had already been doing their learning online,” she said.
The experience for his 9-year-old brother, Lincoln, was a bit different. He was enrolled in the Spanish Immersion program.
“Come to find out my third grader [Lincoln] had been thinking that he was submitting things and then I got an email from the teacher. He had not submitted a single thing in three weeks,” said Labrum.
KSL’s Statewide Education Survey: Polling Parents & Teachers
In a KSL-exclusive poll of Utah parents and teachers, the overwhelming majority — 86 percent — of parents said they feel like they have the necessary technology and support for distance learning.
KSL conducted the survey in late May — 3,281 teachers and 385 parents answered 39 detailed questions about the successes and failures of distance learning in our state.
When KSL asked what barriers parents experienced that impacted distance learning during COVID-19, they identified several issues with technology: 22 percent said there weren’t enough devices at home, 15 percent said their home internet is unreliable, and 11 percent said they had issues with their child’s software. Fewer than one percent of parents surveyed said they had no computer or tablet at home. But surprisingly, 34 percent said none of the most common barriers applied to their student(s).
When teachers were asked the same question, the results were certainly different. Teachers identified technology issues as barriers to their students’ success in strong numbers.
More than half of teachers (55 percent) surveyed said their students had issues with software; 54 percent said their students didn’t have enough devices at home and 67 percent said the students’ home internet was unreliable.
In direct opposition to what parents told KSL, 43 percent of teachers said there was a problem with no computer or tablet at home.
Fewer than three percent of teachers surveyed responded that none of the identified issues applied to their students.
By far the largest issue teachers identified: adults in the home who had difficulty helping students with school assignments – 68 percent listed that as a barrier.
Utah State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson acknowledged that parents struggled to help students with schoolwork at home.
“That I think was our greatest challenge for parents was just how to figure out all the technology,” Dickson said.
Utah: The Tech Corridor
Home to Silicon Slopes and hundreds of tech startups, Utah is known as a technology-savvy state.
A recent study that looked at U.S. Census Bureau data on internet subscriptions to determine “Internet Deserts” ranked Utah No. 2 for the most connected state. Just 10 percent of households in the state aren’t connected to the internet.
But did that give Utah students an advantage over other states when it came to online school?
“It was far from perfect,” Dickson admitted. “But I think Utah had more digital tools and more opportunities to engage in remote learning than perhaps a lot of our other neighboring states.”
Canvas: Utah Developed, Accessible In Every K-12 School
Some state lawmakers might argue learning management system Canvas, is that advantage. The system was already in place when COVID-19 sent Utah students home.
“You can think of it as a classroom online. When teachers are providing resources to their students, they have a consistent place for that to be done,” said Trenton Goble, the vice president of K-12 strategy at Instructure.
In 2018, the Utah legislature funded Canvas for all of K-12, giving every Utah school access to the online program.
But that doesn’t mean every school was using it. It was up to districts, schools – sometimes teachers – to implement Canvas if and when they wanted.
“A lot of leaders were probably questioning when was the right time to make that transition. We’ve seen the pandemic has expedited that,” Goble added.
When the pandemic hit, many schools and teachers turned to different online options.
Labrum had never heard of Canvas. Her son Lincoln’s third grade class used several distance learning platforms, but not that one.
“The teachers were trying to use seven different online learning modules,” she added.
Lincoln used everything from Microsoft Teams to McGraw-Hill, to ZOOM and Kahoot! And both Lincoln and his mom said the programs weren’t always user-friendly.
“I’d spend half my day logging in to these different apps,” Lincoln said, laughing.
“The Achilles heel of COVID online learning was passwords,” his mother added.
Without a centralized online learning system, Labrum said it was a lot to manage, especially with three children all learning at home at once.
That’s a major criticism echoed across the state.
“That’s a takeaway that I think our districts and schools will say we need to be more consistent so that we’re not overwhelming parents,” said Dickson.
Bountiful father of four Mike Gibson agrees there should be more consistency in programs among students and more integration between existing systems used.
“It was frustrating,” said Gibson. “At least in Davis school district, they have two different systems.”
One of those systems is Canvas. The other is the “MyDSD” platform.
With one high school student at the Gibson home, another in middle school, and two in elementary, the family juggled a lot of systems and a lot of technology.
“All the teachers, they need to learn this stuff. You need to be able to use technology,” stressed Gibson.
Another takeaway state leaders can’t ignore: the fact that not all “COVID education” in Utah was created equal.
According to national digital divide data published by the EdWeek Research Center, in schools where poverty rates exceed 75 percent, only about 31 percent of district leaders say everyone who needs home internet access has it.
That’s why the Granite School District parked 35 specifically-equipped Wi-Fi buses at strategic locations across the district, including parks, neighborhoods, and apartment complexes, to help their students get online.
The district also distributed more than 30,000 Chromebooks.
“We have some of the most impoverished students in the entire state. We also have a large contingency of refugee students,” explained Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley.
The state superintendent says the issue is about education equity.
“That digital divide is one of the things that we need to continue to overcome. Whether we’re in COVID or not, it is a great equalizer in families and students being able to access knowledge,” explained Dickson.
All things considered, how did parents grade Utah’s education technology performance during COVID-19, pass or fail?
“Pass. They did a great job. It was a lot to ask and they adapted quickly,” said Labrum.
“Pass,” said Gibson, while adding, “If they continued next year, having to do it all online, I think there’d be a lot of things they need to really improve.”
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at [email protected] or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.