Back to School Means Virtual Struggle

Back to School Means Virtual Struggle

As parents and children geared up to go back to school for the 2020 school year, many parents find themselves confronting a new challenge – not having reliable access to technology in the home. As many schools shift to virtual learning platforms, research shows that there are several constraints that low socioeconomic families may face – many of which are now being furthered due to the digital divide. 

As noted in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early April 2020, one of the greatest issues that families have faced is having basic access to computers. The report that surveyed families whose children were home due to a school closure showed that roughly one in five parents with children at home didn’t have access to a working computer. Others in the study (22%) shared that they relied on a local internet connection that was often unstable. More than 29% shared that their children had to do their homework on a mobile device. 

As mentioned in a 2018 study, one-in-five Black teens between the ages of 13-17 stated that they could not complete homework due to not having access to reliable technology. Many of them who stated they went to after school programs and libraries to do their homework now don’t have that option because of closures due to COVID. Now that more than 53% of adults have noted that access to technology has been essential to them during the pandemic, many are wondering how the digital divide is going to further impact parents and children who live in poverty. 

While many of these concerns are mostly from individuals with lower incomes, several families believe that this digital divide will make it harder for their children to not only complete their schoolwork, but to stay ahead of the COVID-19 curve. Beyond parents fearing that their children are going to fall behind, the concern around what is being called the “homework gap” continues to grow. 

This gap, which refers to school-age children lacking the connectivity they need to produce both schoolwork and homework, centers on how the COVID digital divide is going to have a much more problematic impact on Black and Brown students. For many parents, the fear is that there won’t be a way for students to catch up once this is all over, furthering the achievement gap that is already prevalent in the K-12 education system. 

As one article by McKinsey & Company points out, one of the bigger issues around COVID-19 and the digital divide is how students will fare once this is all over. Considering that the educational system itself continues to fail marginalized and lower-income families when students are in the classroom, many Black and Brown students may continue to struggle while being at home because they are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning. 

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As data from the Curriculum Associates suggest, only 60% of low-income students log in to instruction, with schools that serve Black and brown students showing a low rate of online participation. What many of these numbers translate to is a great learning loss, furthering the fear that there will be a massive dropout surge by the time that this is all over. The only real way for these issues to be rectified is to not only acknowledge the issues, but to think of solutions that will help ease the damage. 

In thinking about ways to address the technology issues that low-income families have, we have to think about it from an equity based lens. While acknowledging the challenge is a great way to start, we must understand that technology must not be the only way we encourage students to learn during this time. In taking advice from the Center for Global Development, we have to think about ways to not only simplify curricula and modify learning goals, but administrators must be willing to do the work to make sure more learning materials are made available. 

Educators should be thinking about how to use the resources that almost every student has access to (radio, television or even social media, to some degree) as a way to help educate our students. As we think about this and focus on making learning a community-based practice rather than one that is solely focused on technology, it makes the recovery more feasible in a time of uncertainty.

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