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A mother and daughter study English on March 30, 2020 in Mineola, New York.
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The shift to online learning could worsen educational inequality

As school goes digital, low-income students are being left behind.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order on March 22, Tierra has been at home with her four children, ages six months, two years, five, and six. They live with her grandmother in a crowded apartment in Brownsville, a largely low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The two older kids are in kindergarten and first grade, and like the 1.1 million other public-school students in New York City — and millions more around the country — their education has moved entirely online as schools close their doors to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

For Tierra’s family, that transition has been challenging. The family doesn’t have a computer, so the kids have been doing their schoolwork on iPhones, which makes it hard for Tierra, who asked that her last name not be used, to check their work. “It’s so small, I’ll probably miss something,” she told Vox.

It’s also hard for them to concentrate when they’re at home with the entire family. To help keep the baby quiet, Tierra sometimes puts on cartoons — but then the older kids watch those instead of paying attention to their schoolwork. At home “there’s so many distractions around,” Tierra says.

Her family’s experience is a reminder that while the transition to online education is an adjustment for everyone, it’s a lot more difficult for some families than for others. Like Tierra’s children, about 17 percent of students nationwide lack a computer at home, according to a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press. Eighteen percent lack broadband internet access. Low-income families and families of color are especially likely to be without these resources, according to the AP.

Na’Asia Hawkins, 18, a senior at Washington Metropolitan High School, in Washington DC, had no laptop and no internet access when her school closed. She has since been able to get both with the help of her school and hopes to graduate this year.
Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Parents of students in the Plainview, New York pick up Chromebooks at the district administrative office to allow students to continue their studies at home on March 16.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

And the so-called “digital divide” is only the beginning. Many low-income students are now in the position of trying to do their schoolwork in small spaces shared with other family members — sometimes in just a single room. While cities have set up food distribution centers to help students in need, many are still missing out on the resources and sense of stability that school can provide. Meanwhile, students in poverty are having to deal with the trauma of living in a pandemic without many of the protections that more affluent families have, like the ability for parents to work from home or take sick leave.

“Children are watching family members die,” Natasha Capers, coordinator of New York City’s Coalition for Educational Justice, told Vox. “They’re watching their parents leave their home daily to go outside to work in what is described on television as a dangerous situation.”

Experts around the country fear that the coronavirus crisis will end up worsening America’s existing educational inequality, making it harder than ever for low-income students to learn, and putting them at an even greater disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers.

“My concern is that they will fall even further behind than they are already,” Raysa Rodriguez, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the Citizens’ Committee for Children, said of students in temporary housing in New York. “Given what we know about the connection and relationship between education and future economic outcomes, I think that we’re really setting them up to fail in the long run if we don’t do even more to ensure that their educational needs are met.”

From lacking computers to physical space, low-income students are at a disadvantage in online learning

Schools have closed in all 50 states in response to the coronavirus crisis, with many states extending those closures through the end of the school year. In general, school districts are replacing in-person instruction with some form of distance learning, usually online.

What that looks like varies widely from state to state and district to district. In some cases, schools have switched at least part of the day to some form of video conference, Jennifer Darling-Aduana, a soon-to-be assistant professor at Georgia State University who studies equity in digital learning, told Vox. That has the advantage of providing face-to-face time with a teacher and limiting how much parents need to direct lessons, she said, but parents also have to be tech-savvy enough — and have the right equipment — to set up the conference. It’s also less workable with younger students who may have a harder time sitting still during a video call.

At the other extreme, Darling-Aduana said, are schools that are “just sending home a bunch of worksheets.” But that’s not particularly interactive, she said, and neither approach represents the “gold standard of digital learning, which is ideally providing students access to resources outside of their community.”

Malaki Solo, a sixth-grader, works on his homework in Boston on March 31. Malaki, who is a generally confident student, has been feeling unmoored during this online learning experiment. He can’t reach out to teachers if he has a question about his work and is getting little feedback.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Reaching that gold standard requires significant advance preparation, Darling-Aduana added, a luxury districts around the country didn’t have in responding to the pandemic. The result is something of a hodgepodge, in which families are sometimes left with basic logistical challenges. Tierra, for example, recalls her kindergartner being told to cut out letters and paste them in boxes for one assignment. But, Tierra wondered, “How am I supposed to cut out some letters and paste them in the box if we’re doing it online?”

Meanwhile, online learning requires the ability for students to get online in the first place, which isn’t possible for many families. For starters, there’s the problem of internet access. “If you live in a more affluent community, you take it for granted,” Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA who studies inequality in schools, told Vox. However, “we have lots of urban and rural areas where internet access is not available.”

That availability varies widely from state to state. In Wyoming, for example, just under 3 percent of students lack internet, and about 14 percent lack broadband, according to Education Department statistics gathered in 2017 and analyzed by the AP. But in Washington, DC, 19 percent of students have no internet and 34 percent have no broadband.

Meanwhile, internet access isn’t much good if you don’t have a device a child can use for schoolwork. Around the country, many students lack access to a computer at home, from around 8 percent in Utah to 28 percent in DC.

And, especially for low-income families, “if you have more than one child, you may have a laptop at home, you may have a tablet, but you probably don’t have one for each child, especially if they’re young,” Capers said.

That can leave students of different ages trying to share a device, which is not an ideal solution when some districts are recommending multiple hours of online learning per day.

Pedro Munguia, 16, a Reseda Charter High School student, picks up a Chromebook with his mother Graciela on March 25.
Sarah Reingewirtz/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Then there’s the issue of physical space. While children of more affluent families may each have their own room in which to do homework or watch lectures, that’s not the case for many lower-income students. In New York City, for example, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the US, 1 in 10 public school students lives in a shelter or other temporary housing, Rodriguez said. Shelter housing in New York might mean a single room for a family with multiple school-aged kids, she said. “What does distance learning really look like in that scenario? How effective can that actually be in the long run?”

Meanwhile, distance learning requires a lot from parents, who have to make sure that kids have the tools they need, are using them correctly, and then help them stay on task and complete assignments in the absence of face-to-face contact with teachers and other school staff. “Online instruction often, especially initially, requires more, not less support,” than in-person learning, Darling-Aduana said.

Not every parent is able to provide that support. Some — often white-collar workers — are able to work remotely during this time and provide at least some supervision for their kids, Darling-Aduana noted. But others have to work outside the home, and although some cities, including New York, have set up centers to provide child care and instruction to children of essential workers, not all parents feel comfortable sending their children there.

There are also language barriers to consider. “There are lots of people in our system whose first language is not English,” Capers noted, meaning that parents and kids alike may have difficulty using online resources that are English-only. And there are socioeconomic differences in who feels comfortable reaching out to teachers for additional help, Darling-Aduana said.

Add to all that the fact that students in America right now are in an unprecedented crisis — one that is impacting low-income families and families of color the most severely, from high death rates in black communities to high levels of layoffs among low-wage workers. Those impacts touch all aspects of students’ lives, including school.

As much as it’s important to focus on academics, “I want to think about our children as people and what they’re going through, their families as people and what they’re going through,” Capers said.

Schools are trying to fill the resource gaps, but there are problems other than lacking technology

Experts say it’s critical to address the disparities in online learning, because they could magnify disparities that already exist.

Students in temporary housing in New York City, for example, “have much poorer outcomes than students who are permanently housed,” Rodriguez said, from attendance to performance on standardized tests. Even before the crisis, “we were significantly concerned about the educational outcomes of these students,” and now, “we are deeply troubled about their educational trajectory and the possibility of a significant amount of learning loss in the next coming weeks,” she noted.

Districts around the country are sending devices to students who don’t have them, in an effort to close at least that gap. New York City is sending iPads to students who don’t have computers, but as of Monday, Tierra’s family had yet to receive theirs. The city’s Department of Education says it is distributing the iPads on a rolling basis, starting the week of March 23 with students living in shelters, and continuing this week with high school students in public housing, students with disabilities, and multilingual learners.

A phone conference is held in a classroom for a student whose parents need English translation at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in Manhattan, New York.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
A parent of a student receives one of many laptops being lent to students in need for remote learning at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in Manhattan, New York.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Lack of internet access may be a more difficult problem, though districts are working to fix it. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, 4,000 of the district’s 50,000 students have no internet, according to US News & World Report. The district has responded by strengthening wifi signals at schools so that families can access them from nearby, as well as deploying wifi-enabled buses to neighborhoods with a large percentage of low-income students. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the district is partnering with Verizon to get students’ internet access, while Atlanta is distributing mobile hotspots in partnership with T-Mobile.

Meanwhile, the Citizens’ Committee for Children, a co-convener of New York’s Family Homelessness Coalition, is advocating that homeless students in New York City be allowed to go to regional enrichment centers for education, along with children of essential workers.

“Housing instability comes with a significant amount of trauma and schools play an important role in building resilience for children,” Rodriguez said. And given that there is a system set up to serve some students in the city, “students in temporary housing need to be prioritized.”

Schools and society as a whole also need to help to make sure students’ basic needs are being met as much as possible, Darling-Aduana said. And, according to Capers, they can’t act like this is business as usual.

“We have to rethink what we want to come out of this moment,” she said, and instead of focusing only on academics, start thinking about using distance learning to teach — and express — things like empathy and ethics. “How do we use this moment to really instill some core quality things into our system that have been missing?” Capers asked. “The biggest part of that is humanity.”

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