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Examining Inequities in Online Education in the Midst of COVID-19

By a Verblio Writer

(2544 words)

Long before COVID-19 began closing schools and forcing us to work from home, we knew there was a digital divide. Because the internet is so widespread, this divide threatens access to education, jobs, and nearly every aspect of society. Although we have developed various programs to address these inequities in schools, many students are still falling through the cracks.

For many school districts, parents, and students, the pandemic has only further magnified a dire situation. Online education during the pandemic has been considered a failure across much of the country. For rural communities and many Black and Brown neighborhoods, however, it has been a disaster.

What did we learn from this past spring’s experiment in online learning? And how can we better equip every community to provide quality online education in the coming school year and beyond?

Without a doubt, schools have a massive challenge on their hands. The pandemic is still out of control in many states, and there are no sound national guidelines. Schools have to respond to a crisis that changes week-by-week, if not day-by-day. This all is happening amid another pandemic that has ignited protests in the streets against social injustice. Nonetheless, in communities across the nation, in schools in rural areas and on city blocks, the existing inequality needs to be addressed.

What We Knew Before COVID-19

The gap in access to technology across society is not a new thing. Neither are the efforts to address this imbalance. For many years, substantial research and monies have aimed at conquering the digital divide for the sake of disadvantaged students.

Internet and smartphone usage has dramatically increased since the technology debuted. However, according to the Pew Research Center, a wide gap still persists in this usage between high-income and low-income individuals. This gap directly impacts the ability of many to participate in online education effectively. For many low-income households, the following technology imbalances exist: 

Access to technology devices:

  • 29% do not own a cell phone
  • 46% do not have a computer
  • 64% do not own a tablet

Access to the internet:

  • 44% do not have home broadband services

Among high-income households, 64% report having a cell phone, broadband access, a desktop or a laptop, and a tablet. In contrast, only 18% of low-income families indicate having all these resources. Without access to other devices, many lower-income Americans rely on cell phones to go online.

The statistics mentioned above have direct consequences for children in these households. With fewer devices and limited access to high-speed internet, such children are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to online education. Research shows that students without a computer or internet access are already behind academically.

What We Learned from the Recent School Shutdowns

Back in March, most of us could not have imagined the situation school districts would face within weeks. But as the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis became more apparent, the race to put systems in place began. Unfortunately for districts, it was just that—a race—and one that started on an uneven track.

When the mandate first required schools to close their doors, many districts were able to switch to online instruction. Some surveys indicated that by May, 90 – 95% of teachers were conducting remote learning. Though planning was often rushed or, in some cases, nonexistent, teachers did the best they could.

But what did this education look like, and how successful was it? And with the goal being for schools in this country to continue educating all its students, was that objective met? Like many things, in uncovering the answers to these questions, it depends on whom you ask. However, what appears not to be in dispute is the unequal education afforded to low-income and Black and Brown students.

The Barriers to Online Learning

For many students, learning from home presented several challenges, from less engagement to a lack of teacher feedback. And for students on the wrong side of the digital divide, the challenges were often overwhelming. Consider the following scenarios that an average eighth-grader in a low-income household might face:

  • You need to complete your homework online, but your family doesn’t have a computer.
  • Your family has a computer, but everyone in the home shares it.
  • When it’s your turn to use the computer, there may be connectivity/speed issues. This means it will take you much longer to complete your work, if you even are able to do so.
  • Maybe you or your mom has a cell phone, but how will you successfully complete your homework on a phone?

The issues around access to technology were likely the most significant barrier to learning in some communities. Lack of access prevented many students from engaging when online learning was an option. It also shaped policy that caused districts to opt-out of online instruction altogether. 

A ‘Pandemic’ Within a Pandemic

Online learning varied from state to state, with offerings ranging from live video, recorded video, to no video instruction. Nationwide, though, many low-income or Black and Brown households experienced the following:

  • Lower engagement than more affluent students. Access was not the only factor with a negative impact on engagement in online learning. The childcare crisis also affected low-income students, requiring many to watch their siblings so that parents could go to work. As a result, only 51% of teachers in low-income areas reported daily engagement by their students in distance learning. In affluent schools, meanwhile, that number rose to 84% of teachers.
  • Less connection with teachers. It was reported that low-income students were less likely than those of a higher-income to be connected with their teachers. In some rural districts, only 27% required any instruction at all when schools were closed.
  • Lack of new content. Distance learning for many poor students meant reviewing old material instead of learning new content. Some districts stated that this was a deliberate effort to help students to retain previous information. However, this decision may contribute to putting these students further behind.
  • Use of paper packets. Some districts opted out of electronic instruction altogether, due to a large percentage of their students lacking access to technology. Students were given ‘learning packets’ instead. According to a survey of K-12 school districts, 47% of high poverty districts used these packets as a ‘primary component’ of their distance learning strategy. These physical paper packets were to be completed and returned at different times depending on the district. Some did not have to be returned until in-person school resumed, presumably in the fall.
  • ‘Homework gap’ – As previously mentioned, low-income students often had difficulties completing their homework because of access issues. In one study, 36% of parents indicated their children could not complete their homework because they lacked access to a computer.

The Stakes for Prolonged Distance Learning

Researchers have expressed concern over the prospect of prolonged online instruction. The ‘COVID slide’ refers to the expected learning loss from the subpar education many students so far have received. When added to the annual impact known as the ‘summer slide,’ experts project that these effects will be especially damaging to Black, Brown, and low-income students.

According to a report by McKinsey & Company, if in-person instruction does not resume until January 2021, there will be negative impacts for all students. But for those in poor neighborhoods who may be receiving low-quality instruction, the losses will be more severe. In addition to the access issues mentioned above, many of these students may lack other supports. These include aids like a quiet space to do their work or parental supervision.

If students are not back in the physical classroom until January 2021, the expected average learning loss is seven months. For Hispanic students, however, that number is 9.2 months. For Black students, it could reach 10.3 months, and for low-income students it may be more than a year. This could worsen existing achievement gaps by 15 – 20%.

On the economic side, these effects could amount to a COVID-19 related loss in lifetime income between $61,000 – 82,000 for the average student. These figures are more dismal when it comes to Black and Brown students.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Remote learning likely will continue across much of the nation as the virus continues to spike in many states. Many teachers fear returning to school buildings, and parents are wary of sending their children into classrooms.

So, what did we learn from the ‘trial by fire’ experiment this spring? We discovered that we need to do a lot of work to make online education better for every student, especially Black and Brown students. Many experts are hopeful, similar to scientists who are optimistic in our ability to combat the virus. But only if we act, and act quickly.

Most believe that our goal as a nation should be getting to the point where children and teachers can go back to school safely. However, we can only do this if the virus is under control. When that is accomplished, our schools can even use online education to complement in-person instruction.

In the meantime, what can we do to make online schooling more equitable? Below are some suggestions for the various stakeholders involved as we move forward.

Making Distance Learning More Equitable

In improving distance learning outcomes, we need to start seeing digital access as a right for all persons. The achievement gap stemming from the lack of digital access is ultimately an economic problem, and a national problem.

This economic problem long predates COVID-19. Back in 2009, the report mentioned above estimated that ‘the gap between white students and black and Hispanic ones deprived the US economy of $310 billion to $525 billion a year in productivity, equivalent to 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The achievement gap between high- and low-income students was even larger, at $400 billion to $670 billion, 3 to 5 percent of GDP.’

When we consider the challenges of Black and Brown students, we need to understand that it is not simply a ‘Black and Brown’ problem. Only then will we be able to make education better for all students.

Ensure Internet Access for All Students

Issues surrounding access to technology affect community members’ ability to partake in many areas of life. When it comes to education, lack of access relegates children to a second class status and limits their potential. Therefore, it is critical that all students be given access if they cannot afford it.

  • Districts should provide computers and internet access if they can do so. Although this may not be possible for some poorer school districts, many are turning to partnerships with businesses and internet providers to obtain access for their students. In Detroit, for example, the school system partnered with businesses to form Connected Futures. This initiative enabled schools to offer free devices, broadband, and support to families.
  • Other schools have outfitted specific neighborhood locations or vehicles with internet capabilities for community members to gain access.
  • Additionally, federal funding should be distributed to those hardest hit by COVID-19, including monies to go towards purchasing technology.

It is also important to empower communities in this process. By assessing a community’s specific needs, we can purchase the equipment, software, and other technology that is most essential. It will also empower trusted community resources such as CBOs to serve as allies in helping families use this technology.

Engage Through Structured Learning

Online instruction is new for most American parents, teachers, and students. Furthermore, the time we had to prepare for the recent dive into remote learning was minimal on all sides. One major barrier to success in distance learning is a lack of student engagement. If students are not engaged, learning will not occur. Here are some factors for structuring learning in an online environment.

  • Keep it simple. One surefire way to decrease engagement is to attempt to teach online the same way you would during in-person instruction. Students will not be able to sit through an entire day of looking at a screen. In addition, be sure to use tools that students are familiar with. Now is not the time to introduce new technology with a steep learning curve.
  • Be creative. More than likely, it was your creativity that got you through this past spring. If so, you will need to continue flexing this skill as you plan and implement your lessons in the fall. Although districts may have specific curriculum requirements, it is best to develop short, personalized delivery modes when it comes to teaching remotely. Create multiple versions of your activities and lessons and consider the single objective you want your students to master.
  • Utilize a learning management system. Tools such as Google Classroom or Edmodo can facilitate the organization of all your material on one platform.
  • Collaborate. Share information with other teachers regarding valuable resources.

Create Curriculums that Work for All

We have long known that different students have different ways of learning. In the current environment, allowing for those different learning styles becomes even more essential. These suggestions can benefit all students, including those with special needs and technology challenges.

  • Develop both synchronous and asynchronous activities. Having flexibility in your lessons (some that are in real-time v. some that are self-paced) allows for flexibility in the way students interact with the content. This may be especially beneficial for students who need to do their schoolwork in the evenings or on weekends.
  • Conduct hybrid learning. Emphasize individualized academic pacing for students. Give students regular, constructive feedback. Provide the same resources and assignments to students learning online and in the classroom.
  • Know who needs help. Pay extra attention to the most vulnerable students. One school district purchased software that monitors student participation. When students don’t reach a certain participation threshold, they receive a check-in by a staff member.
  • Provide multimodality. Produce multiple ways of presenting information and various ways for students to respond to information learned.

Provide Support for Teachers and Families

Distance education is uncharted territory. As we navigate this new reality, supporting our parents and educators will make for a smoother experience and better outcomes.

  • Teachers – If we want teachers to be successful in doing their jobs, many may require technology training to help them deliver online education effectively. This training may include strategies for keeping students engaged, maintaining strong relationships with students, and personalizing instruction.
  • Parents – Caregivers want to be able to help their children with their schoolwork. During the school closures, the poorest parents spent the same amount of time per week helping their children with schoolwork as parents who earned over $200,000/year. But many families of color or low-income households need help with home-based learning. To better support their children, they need technical help or strategies for improving engagement.
  • School leaders – School administrators must also support parents and teachers in the process of online education. Principals can be proactive in addressing concerns, determining what parents and students need, and exploring external partnerships for technology resources. Tech leaders can advocate for broadband access and make smart technology purchases. They can also train teachers using the same tools students will be using.

The jobs of teachers, parents, and principals are never easy. And the current challenges to schools posed by COVID-19 has made their jobs significantly more demanding.

The road ahead may not always be clear. What is certain, however, is that we must work towards removing the barriers that hinder Black, Brown, and low-income students. These efforts will ensure that all our children receive the quality education they deserve.

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