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Know the West

In Las Vegas, the burdens of remote learning rest heavy on working parents

One of the nation’s largest school districts is trying to provide laptops and Wi-Fi to more than 300,000 students.

Rosa Corona’s workday as a janitor begins at 9 a.m. at the Encore and Wynn Las Vegas, the two smoothly curving glass monoliths that comprise one of the Las Vegas Strip’s largest hotel and casino resorts. Her husband, Daniel Guerrero, also works at Encore, but on the graveyard shift, cleaning carpets and dusting marble. He starts at midnight and gets off at 8 a.m., right around the time their two older kids, 12 and 14, log on to their digital classrooms. Their kindergarten-age daughter, however, requires the presence of a parent.

That hour between the end of his shift and the beginning of hers epitomizes the pandemic’s burden on working parents. If everything goes according to plan, Guerrero gets home to help their kindergartener, just as Corona heads out the door, with only enough time for a few words in passing. On a recent morning, however, the timing was off: Traffic was bad and Guerrero’s shift ran late. Corona barely had time to set her daughter up for the digital classroom, hand her some Play-Doh and then rush out the door.

 

Meredith Noce helps daughter Kaidence, 4, set up her virtual class as son Liam, 2, plays next to her at their home in Las Vegas, Nevada, in October. Noce balances work, assisting kids with online school and technology, preparing meals, defusing arguments and changing diapers.

Their daughter’s teacher called later that day: The child wasn’t paying attention and had been kicked out of that day’s digital classroom. Once Corona explained the situation, the teacher understood, she told me in a recent phone call. But this is the family’s everyday life now – Corona races off to work at the last second, where, masked and gloved, she cleans the casino, while her husband, equally exhausted, gets home from the night shift to care for their daughter. The schedule takes a toll on everyone.

“I’m really stressed out,” said Corona, a casino worker for 12 years. Still, she accepts the remote learning for her kids’ sake. “I don’t want them to get sick, so even though we have a lot of stress, it’s got to be this way until things get better.”

Schools and casinos are inseparable in Las Vegas: more than a third of CCSD's revenue comes from a sales tax aimed at tourism. The district also receives money from a statewide gambling tax. But the city’s dependence on the industry means that COVID-19’s economic fallout has hit it especially hard. Even before the pandemic, Las Vegas had high levels of economic inequality. That inequality has only been exacerbated by the toll on service industry workers: Unemployment peaked at more than 30% in April, and now lingers at around 16%. Those without jobs struggle to make ends meet, while those who work — like Corona — must balance their jobs with the pandemic’s unprecedented demands on families.

“The reality is that, in America, we have built a system where working adults depend on school to provide childcare for eight hours a day.” 

The problems with remote instruction and its inevitable challenges for families are particularly acute in Las Vegas. The Strip reopened June 4, yet the more than 300,000 students who attend the Clark County School District, one of the nation’s largest, remain fully remote today.

Clark County has one of the nation’s largest populations of students without a permanent residence, as well as one of the highest number learning English as a second language. The mobilization effort required to move students online, which forced the district to expand broadband access, has been enormous. Administrators work hard to reach every student and prevent any from slipping through the cracks, while teachers and other staff supply laptops and check in on families. But despite the district’s efforts, it’s been messy.

“The reality is that, in America, we have built a system where working adults depend on school to provide childcare for eight hours a day,” said Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA. “Take that away, and what are you left with?”

Clark County School District buses are seen parked in a lot during an October school day in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

SCHOOL BUSES still roam Las Vegas neighborhoods. But they no longer pick up students. Instead, in the wake of the shift to remote instruction, the district has turned its buses into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. They park in areas with poor connectivity, allowing students to tune into class or submit assignments.

The district set an ambitious public goal of ensuring that every single student has internet access and a Google Chromebook laptop. Last March, when Clark County sent its students home permanently, Superintendent Jesus Jara estimated that 120,000 students would be unable to participate in a fully online class structure. The remainder of the spring semester proved this. Mike Taak, a sixth-grade teacher at John C. Fremont Professional Development School, described the rest of that semester as occurring in “triage mode.” No grades were given, and teachers struggled to keep track of kids.

The school board voted for a fully remote fall class schedule in July. In August, the district approved a deal with Cox Communications, Nevada’s largest internet company, to provide in-home internet connections to less wealthy families. But handing a kid a laptop does not ensure successful learning, said Garcia, with the Nevada PTA. Low-income neighborhoods lag behind wealthier ones in access to strong broadband, especially in East Las Vegas, the heart of the city’s Latino community. An extensive public health survey from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 61% of U.S. families with children struggle financially due to COVID-19. Latino and Black families reported the highest levels of hardship.

“When you lay over maps of broadband access, housing issues, COVID-19 and job loss, it’s always the same neighborhoods with the hot spots,” said Garcia, an East Las Vegas resident with three children in Clark County’s public schools.

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In addition to the Wi-Fi expansion and the school buses, the district created a directory of businesses, libraries, community centers and other establishments with internet access. Over the summer, parents could pick up laptops at district buildings; Taak said dozens of cars would line up outside his school throughout August, as parents waited for Chromebooks. More than 170,000 students remained unaccounted for after the district’s first attempt to survey family needs. But by Oct. 12, the school district confirmed that more than 309,000 students — 99 % of the entire student population — either had a device of their own or had received one from the district. To date, the district has distributed 241,799 devices. This effort has been bolstered by Connecting Kids Nevada, a statewide public-private partnership that has poured money into connectivity issues.

Still, more than 6,990 students need reliable internet, and more than 3,000 lack a device. Around 3,000 students have not yet been accounted for, a testament to the substantial number of transient students in Clark County. Students here are twice as likely to move during a school year as their peers in other large districts, such as Los Angeles or Chicago, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2018. Whenever unreliable housing makes the Cox Wi-Fi option untenable for students, the district tries to provide personal hot spots.

 Taak said he has spent more time talking to parents this fall and last spring than ever before. He described the single parent of a girl in one of his classes, whom he talked to repeatedly, first about the class itself, but soon about the demands of the pandemic in general; Taak has three school-age kids of his own. They were soon swapping parenting advice.

“I think, for her,” he said on the phone, “it was feeling that there was someone out there in the world who cared about her kid and what she was going through. And as a parent, that was my first thought: How is the kid doing, how are the families doing.” 

Sixth-grade teacher Mike Taak is pictured outside his home in Henderson, Nevada, on Oct. 8, 2020. Now that most of the school district is relying on remote learning, he is currently teaching students from his home.

MANY OF THEM aren’t doing so well.

On three separate occasions, parents interviewed for this story used the phrase “shit-show” to describe remote learning, including Meredith Noce, who was born and raised in Las Vegas, Noce regularly pulls 12-hour days, doing her state government job from home. Her husband, a heavy machine operator who has been laid off twice since March, leaves the house each day for work. Noce’s neighbors both work outside the home. The two families came up with a solution. Each school day, Noce has five kids in her house  three of hers, two from next door  all of them attending school remotely. The families pool their money to pay a tutor, who comes three hours a day, three days a week, to help the kids, especially the elementary school students, with submitting assignments and other online learning hurdles.

Noce knows that many families are unable to pay for such help, but having five kids in the house while she works full-time is an ordeal. She’s never “felt more exhausted for so long in my life.” Though the pandemic has hurt the family finances, they do not qualify for Cox’s subsidized broadband deal. Their internet bill is huge. And she fears what the prolonged isolation is doing to the mental health of her children.

 “I just think that if mental health of our kids is such a concern, and if you’re really worried about it, close the damn casinos.”

“When the internet goes down, or the website doesn’t work, they just sit there in silence,” she said. “They can’t play sports; they haven’t seen their friends since March. I just think that if mental health of our kids is such a concern, and if you’re really worried about it, close the damn casinos.”

But there are hundreds of thousands of casino workers, and they need the income. Corona was furloughed in March, and her regular paycheck helps keep the family afloat. October’s dysfunctional negotiations in Congress squashed the possibility for a second federal stimulus bill — aid that might have eased the burden on working families. Clark County hopes to return to in-person instruction this year, but no specifics have been given. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are rising in Nevada, as elsewhere in the West. So, for now, Corona will continue to leave for work each morning, just as her husband comes home, and her kids log on.

Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor