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B-N School With More Low-Income Families Offers Unique View Of Remote Learning

Karen with her students
Irving Elementary School
Irving School music teacher Karen O'Shea works with her students on the first day of remote learning.

Remote learning presents unique challenges for students from low-income families, though the principal at one such school in west Bloomington says so far they’ve managed quite well.

About 80% of students come from low-income families at Irving Elementary School, which is tucked away in a neighborhood just southwest of downtown. That’s higher than both District 87 (58%) and Unit 5 (33%) as a whole. Irving also is among the most diverse schools; just 37% of students are white.

Irving’s low-income population makes access to devices key during remote learning, said Principal Messina Lambert. Every student was issued a device, although national supply chain issues delayed the arrival of the school’s preferred devices, Lambert said.

Irving Principal Messina Lambert
Irving Principal Messina Lambert

“We were fortunate to have enough devices for staff and students. They’re just not the devices we would’ve preferred to have given out. There are some issues with those,” Lambert said. “So parents didn’t have to worry about a device. They only had to worry about if it was broken, if there was a tech issue, which we’ve been able to support.”

District 87 also has made wireless internet hotspots available for families that need them, Lambert said. Each hotspot can support eight devices--especially helpful in big families that need a lot of bandwidth.

“We’ve had great attendance. We’ve had most of our kids on,” Lambert said. “I can count every day just the handful of kids who aren’t able to connect, and sometimes it’s traditional things, like illness.”

Irving and District 87 also are providing meals not just to its students but to any child 18 and under. A new waiver from the USDA will keep those meals free through the first semester of remote learning. Pickups are Tuesdays and Thursdays at various locations, including at Irving.

The child care situation has not been as dire as initially feared, Lambert said. Families appear to have patched together workable solutions between community organizations offering daylong programs, extended families (like grandparents), and traditional babysitters, she said.

“The community has stepped it up,” Lambert said.

Of course, the one thing that remote learning cannot provide is togetherness and camaraderie. That’s something Irving has historically tried to tackle head on, with a student mobility rate that’s higher than district and statewide averages. (That means students move in and out of Irving's school boundaries more often than at other buildings.) A couple years ago, Irving launched a Harry Potter-style “house system” to help students build relationships with each other, even across grade levels.

There are only a few opportunities for students to make a physical connection to the school this fall, Lambert said. One was at their initial device and instructional materials pickup day. And that’ll happen again when they’re asked to return later this fall to pick up more materials or swap out their device.

“That’s another opportunity to make a connection,” she said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.