Portland Adult Education has raised more than $200,000 to purchase laptop computers, Wi-Fi hot spots, and to hire technological support as it navigates providing remote classes during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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For Gail Burnett, who teaches English as a second language at Portland Adult Education, communication with her students was already sometimes difficult before the coronavirus pandemic.

Relying entirely on virtual learning has made the language barrier more pronounced.

“At the beginning of the semester, I had students who I had never met. I have students who I’ve never seen in the flesh,” Burnett said last week. “At one point I said ‘look at the bottom of the screen,’ and after a while (a student) said, ‘what’s a screen?’”

The program lost nearly a third of its students when the pandemic struck in March, largely due to people without internet access and computers. But now, thanks to donations, Portland Adult Education has collected more than $200,000 to purchase laptop computers and Wi-Fi hot spots, and to fund technological support to help students better navigate the remote learning format.

Anita St. Onge is the executive director of Portland Adult Education (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)

Anita St. Onge, executive director of Portland Adult Education, said Friends of Portland Adult Education, a nonprofit that has supported the program for the past five years, solicited donations to try to raise $106,000 for the technological needs.

The nonprofit ended up gaining more than $200,000 from organizations and individuals, including financial institutions like Bank of America, which donated $40,000 to the program for laptops and hot spots last week.

The Bank of America funds were part of a four-year national commitment to donate $1 billion to advance racial equality and economic opportunity. 

St. Onge said the program’s connectivity issues are a matter of racial equity because the majority of Portland Adult Education’s more than 4,000 students are people of color who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“Students who have recently arrived in the U.S. are often unable to work and others are working two or more minimum-wage jobs,” St. Onge said in a Dec. 1 press release. “These students are putting in a tremendous effort to learn English, or to get a high school diploma, or to prepare for college or a career.”

Many of them, she also noted, are employed “on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic” in industries such as health care, food processing, and production. 

Half of Portland Adult Education’s students are enrolled to take academic classes, St. Onge said, with the remaining 2,000 taking enrichment courses such as art or languages.

She called her program “the best-kept secret in Portland,” because many people do not realize it has more students enrolled than any of the city’s public schools.

St. Onge said the beginning of the pandemic was especially difficult for Portland Adult Education since its Locust Street building regularly served 1,000 students per day in only 16 classrooms. She said the set-up of usually having 30 people per class made social distancing impossible, and inspired an early decision to remain all-remote for the foreseeable future.

Eventually, the program was able to buy 50 Chromebooks and distribute them to what St. Onge described as the “highest-priority people” – those who were just about to complete their high school diplomas or students who had no device at all. Administrators also eventually secured 100 Chromebooks from the Maine Department of Education. 

Students who had smartphones, she said, had to “fend for themselves.” They attended Zoom classes and did other work through their phones.

“We had people trying to learn a new language on a cell phone using WhatsApp because they didn’t have minutes, (and) teachers trying to accommodate that,” St. Onge said.

She added teachers and students alike worked hard to get and stay connected. For instance, teachers sent students paper packets of work in the mail, and students sent teachers photos of their homework for credit. 

The price tag for connectivity is higher than some may think. St. Onge said the responsibility just to supply 200 people with hot spots, at a rate of $40 each, saddles Portland Adult Education with an $8,000 monthly expense.

The program also ran into supply-chain issues in the midst of the pandemic. Administrators ordered approximately 200 laptop computers in August that have yet to arrive because, St. Onge said, “everybody in the world is trying to get Chromebooks.”

Burnett said while her teaching experience has improved somewhat since the start of the pandemic, about half of her students are still joining Zoom classes via their phones, and while it works, “it’s not ideal.” For example, she said, at the start of the semester she would have several students log into Zoom with a display name of “iPhone.”

“You just don’t know what’s going to be hard to understand,” Burnett said. 

She commended St. Onge and the Portland Adult Education program, however, for the success in securing additional funding and technological access for students, and said she is especially grateful for being compensated for additional work she has had to do to plan and contact students during the pandemic. 

An unexpected outcome of this time, both Burnett and St. Onge noted, is how distance learning has been helpful and more convenient for some students – those who work during the day, are parents or do not have access to easy transportation.

“I do think one of the things this has taught us is we need to have a long-term distance-learning strategy,” St. Onge said. 

Burnett also said that despite the hurdles, she still loves being an educator at Portland Adult Education, where she has worked since 2009. She is also inspired by her students.

“Something I’ve noticed since I started teaching ESL, in general, is people have had some really hard things happen in their lives and are living in pretty serious poverty,” she said. “(But) they still come to class with big smiles on their faces. The attitudes are amazing.”

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