Coronavirus May Further Perpetuate Inequality in Schools
The threat of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is forcing educators across the country to think about what they’ll do if they have to close their schools for weeks or even months at a time. State and federal agencies have advised schools to create online learning plans to minimize the disruption to student learning. For some schools, that’s a small leap. Their students have internet connections at home, laptops they can work from, teachers who know how to design online lessons and a strong foundation of in-school blended learning experience.
But the fact is, these schools are rare. Most schools are completely unprepared — or, at best, woefully underprepared — for coronavirus and virtual learning. Unequal internet access is just the tip of the iceberg of a massive equity crisis facing U.S. schools should coronavirus force education online.
“People think it’s about boxes and wires and that’s just the beginning,” said Beth Holland, digital equity and rural project director at the Consortium for School Networking, an industry association for tech directors across the country. CoSN members have been turning to each other for advice and support about how to approach coronavirus and virtual learning. But Holland is not optimistic. The data just don’t support optimism.
According to the latest survey data from the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of adults have broadband internet at home. But the differences based on income are striking. While 92 percent of adults from households earning $75,000 or more per year say they have broadband internet at home, just 56 percent of adults from households earning below $30,000 say the same. About 17 percent of adults access the internet from home through a smartphone only. For the kids in their homes, that means trying to read assignments, write papers, do research and take quizzes with tiny screens and tinier keyboards.
Beyond the “boxes and wires” that get kids internet access in the first place, what happens when they’re online is another problem entirely.
As Holland points out, successful remote learning experiences depend on teachers who know how to create and deliver engaging lessons online and students who have the digital literacy skills to access them. If entire K-12 districts move online, what can schools expect of early elementary schoolers? Not much. Younger children don’t have the independent learning skills, attention spans or social-emotional maturity to succeed in virtual learning environments for very long, let alone the troubleshooting skills they will inevitably need to manage whatever technology they’re using. Many middle and even high schoolers aren’t much better equipped. And what’s more, many of those older students may have to help watch their younger siblings during extended school closures, leaving them little time to tackle assignments of their own.