A surprise spring snow had just started to fall when the three Padilla sisters lined up on a piece of blue tape this week outside Richardson Middle School.

The two younger sisters, who are sixth graders, had arrived to pick up two Chromebooks at their South Side school. After their 16-year-old sister signed a loan form that effectively said they’d owe a $485 replacement fee if they damaged the laptops, the twins were each handed a machine and a charger, which promised to end the squabbles at their home over a single, shared tablet.

“This will help with my homework,” said Ariana Padilla, one of the twins. “Earlier this week, I was trying to read an article and answer questions for social studies on my phone.”

Chicago’s remote learning plan officially kicked off this week, and a critical ingredient is supplying devices to the estimated one-third of district students who don’t have them at home. 

But loaner devices aren’t a cure-all to the hurried transfer of learning from classrooms to homes brought by the coronavirus pandemic, and schools are now confronting new questions: namely, how to increase student participation in Google Classroom sessions, how to provide enough content and community to engage students long term, and how to seek out families whom they haven’t been able to reach. 

And while Chicago schools are still making available paper packets and teachers are calling to check in on families, teachers are increasingly relying on tech devices to create de-facto classrooms, with synchronous video meetings at some campuses, online portfolios, and Google Hangouts for students to chat back and forth with their teachers. 

Schools are getting creative to nudge students to sign on every day — testing out robocalls, virtual field trips, online competitions, even attendance “trophies.” And principals are leaning on a wider networks of relatives, emergency contacts, even other students to try to find families who’ve so far been silent.

At Richardson, a majority Latino school where 96% of students are from low-income households, teachers aren’t formally taking attendance, but they are tracking daily contact with students, said Principal Marie Clouston, who started off the week with a 9:25 a.m. “wakeup robocall.” So far, attendance has hovered around 60% to 70%, including students who miss a virtual classroom meeting but connect with teachers later in the day. (Chicago Public Schools did not have data yet for participation across its 500-plus district-run schools.)

Teachers sent emails in English and Spanish and called parents to flag that the new plan was kicking off this week, and Clouston felt encouraged by the early turnout, even while acknowledging the struggles of reaching some families, as teachers encountered bad phone numbers or bounced back emails. 

Now she’s thinking about how to keep the momentum and build on it. 

“The children have seemed to genuinely be glad to see each other and happy to see their teachers. A couple said to their teachers, ‘I miss you’” and for a middle schooler to say that, that’s kind of a big thing,” said Clouston. But once the newness wears off, there’s a new routine to settle into: “If we have them logged in, we want to keep them logged in.”

She’s putting her school social worker and at-risk coordinator on the trail of missing families, via seeking contacts on emergency forms, relatives, and even asking some students to contact their peers. “Under normal circumstances, if a kid doesn’t come to school after a certain number of days, we do home visits,” she said, “but we can’t do that right now.”

Chicago’s device lending plan was never going to reach all students. For starters, the need outstrips supply by about 15,000 students, according to district estimates, and roughly a third of the 100,000 devices that leaders promised are back-ordered and expected to arrive next week. Meanwhile, home Internet access continues to be a stumbling block for some families. (The district points parents to one provider’s “Internet essentials” package that offers some customers free Wi-Fi for 60 days but has come under some scrutiny; the district also said Thursday it had spent $2.5 million to purchase 11,200 Internet “hot spots,” with four months of free Wi-Fi, for students who are homeless or in temporary living situations.) 

At Scott Joplin Elementary, a majority black school not far from Richardson where nearly every family is low-income, Principal Alene Mason said that of about 420 students, the school has reached all but 85, representing about 50 families once siblings are accounted for. She, too, faces the juggling act of stoking participation among those who’ve logged on to school, while also trying to track down those who haven’t. 

In daily staff meetings held online each morning, teachers discuss how to keep students engaged. One teacher has been providing her students clues all week about the destination for a virtual class field trip. Another issued a video prompt — how students can keep themselves safe during the COVID-19 outbreak — and asked students to film infomercials geared toward teens, then share them via Google Classroom. She’s weighing how to move online a tradition at the school: homeroom competitions for attendance that win classrooms a coveted trophy.

On the first day, when participation numbers were low in one class, “one of my teachers got creative and said, ‘Go phone a friend,’” Mason said. It worked. Minutes later, new faces appeared. 

Beyond start-up challenges, she wonders how and when to surface new material, knowing some students may never log on and risk falling even further behind. 

“How are we prepping them for next school year?” she asked, adding that she is brainstorming with her teachers, who are enthusiastic about helping find answers. “How can we actually get that quality assessment of where they are and how much they have learned?” 

Mason said she thinks often about how the disruption will impact schooling, and said one silver lining is that her parents are more involved than ever before. “Parents are coming in and saying hello on the video screen,” she said.  

Judith Allen, the chief operating officer of the non-profit organization Communities in Schools, which staffs 31 schools with family liaisons and has a new hotline to troubleshoot remote learning problems, said that keeping parents engaged in distance learning will help schools boost participation rates in the short term and could forge more enduring connections between homes and schools. 

Before the pandemic closed school buildings, “the contact that parents would get from a teacher was often negative. But now we’re seeing a shift here that is more positive,” Allen said. “That’s the context here for conversations between teachers and parents: Let’s focus on what the student is doing right.”

For the Padilla sisters, the loaner devices signal a new start. After admitting that their motivation had sagged in the early weeks of the stay-at-home orders, when schools sent home paper packets but online assignments varied widely depending on the school or teacher, the twins said they now plan to revisit a project about goddesses — one is studying Athena, another Demeter. 

Their elder sister, Melissa, who attends a nearby selective enrollment high school, said that she felt newly energized by her school’s plan to focus on a topic a day — think science on Mondays, math on Wednesdays — and her new loaner Chromebook. She’d grown tired of staring at Advanced Placement review videos on her phone.  

She said it helps to have a goal to focus on: Hers is studying for three upcoming AP exams, on which if she scores a 3 or higher will earn her college credit. “I want to be ready.”