Coronavirus was meant to be the “great equalizer,” according to pundits, public officials and a few errant celebrities, but its impact has been anything but equal. Across the country, black people have been contracting the virus and dying from its complications at higher rates. And protective measures put in place to help manage the outbreak and prevent our nation’s hospitals from being overwhelmed are disadvantaging low-income and minority communities in ways they may not fully recover from.
A New York Times article chronicling the current state of online learning also reveals these fault lines. Absence rates—which have long been tied to income disparities—have gotten worse in underresourced schools and school districts.
“The absence rate appears particularly high in schools with many low-income students, whose access to home computers and internet connections can be spotty,” writes the Times. “Some teachers report that less than half their students are regularly participating.”
“The trend is leading to widespread concern among educators, with talk of a potential need for summer sessions, an early start in the fall, or perhaps having some or even all students repeat a grade once Americans are able to return to classrooms.”
Environmental justice advocates and public health physicians have been raising the alarm for weeks about the challenges low-income neighborhoods and communities of color face in combatting the coronavirus. Not only are they more vulnerable to the worst parts of the coronavirus pandemic, like disproportionately developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, but adhering to protective protocols is also more difficult.
Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, told the Times an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the district’s students lack reliable access to the internet in their homes. This has required the district to take a multi-prong approach: educators must develop plans and support for online learning, but printed work packets will also be distributed, along with free meals, for those who lack the technology to keep up with their classes.
Austin Betner, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, the country’s second-largest school district, said about 13 percent of area high school students have had no online contact with their teachers since campuses closed last month. Another third are “not regularly participating in online learning,” the Times writes. New York City, the largest school district in the nation, has yet to release data on online learning participation, but lack of internet access and parental supervision were cited as concerns for closing city schools down in March.
This deepening inequality is forged on class and racial lines (because, #America). A 2018 Pew Research Center study found one in four black teens said they often or sometimes could not do homework because they lacked reliable access to a computer or WiFi (only 13 percent of white teens reported similar difficulty). And the options available to some of those students—going to a library, for instance, or a friend or neighbor’s house—are no longer possible during the pandemic.
One Los Angeles County-based teacher, Heber Marquez, estimated that less than half of his classrooms were attending video-facilitated classroom meetings. He perfectly summed up why students who have less support at home would also have a harder time participating in online classes at this time, even with access to the necessary technology:
“A lot of our students have siblings they have to take care of, and their parents are still going out and working,” Marquez told the Times. “It makes it very difficult to log on at the same time as feeding breakfast to their siblings or helping with chores.”
Meanwhile, at some selective and affluent schools, “close to 100 percent of students are participating in online learning,” the Times reports.
These exacerbated learning disparities are precisely what some education advocates feared would happen when districts around the country began closing down schools for the year. As Doug Fuchs, a professor of special education at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, told Newsweek in March:
“A lot of these underperforming students are underperforming partly because many schools are incapable of providing them with the intensity of instruction that they really need,” Fuchs said. “Many of them are getting something, not enough but something, and taking them out of school now reduces that instruction and attention to virtually nothing.”
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told the Times the amount of work required to level the playing field for these students will be “huge,” and the effects of the coronavirus campus closures “could have implications for years.”
“Many skills build one on another,” Casserly said. “If a child misses out on some key idea, then all of a sudden, additional ideas as they’re introduced just become Greek. Will we need some kind of beginning of the year diagnostics to try and figure out just where the kids are, how much they have lost?”
As coronavirus outbreaks continue to spike across the country, it’s still uncertain when, and to what capacity, schools will reopen. Closing schools is still the safest choice, given the current strains on our healthcare system (with the worst still yet to come), but because of our country’s deeply-seated racial and class divides, even the medicine brings a different kind of pain.