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As School Goes Digital, Low-income Students Get Left Behind

With the pandemic shaping the “new normal,” many services have moved online. You can now order groceries or have a meeting with your marketing strategy consultant with just a few clicks on your laptop. But you can’t say the same for education. As school goes digital, many students get left behind.

Digital divide further widens the education gaps

In districts where students are from affluent neighborhoods, close to 100 percent of students participate in Zoom classes. But in schools with many low-income students and where many children live in remote areas unserved by internet providers, more students miss online classes.

Chronic absenteeism is a constant problem in American education. But the pandemic has made the problem worse as not all students have access to home computers, internet connection, and conducive learning space. Some students have a district-issued laptop, but they can’t still participate online since their families had trouble paying their Wi-Fi bills. Other schools resort to providing printed work packets. But these materials aren’t interactive; students can’t easily reach out to teachers if they have questions.

The digital divide is only the beginning. Amidst the pandemic, many low-income students face more challenges that make it difficult for them to embrace online learning.

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Problems beyond the lacking technology

Before, many obstacles could prevent low-income students from making it to class. For instance, the parent’s car suddenly broke down, and the student already missed the bus, or the teenager needed to stay home to babysit younger siblings as their parents got another job for the day. But online learning presents a whole new set of challenges other than the lack of laptop and internet connection.

As everyone is ordered or encouraged to stay home, many low-income students try to do schoolwork in small spaces they shared with other family members. It’s also difficult to participate in a Zoom class or answer worksheets when a teenager needs to feed younger siblings and do household chores.

In Cleveland, where the child poverty rate is high, many parents continue to work full-time this pandemic. They work outside their homes in industries like health, food service, and sanitation. Students do not have an adult at home to supervise their learning. Imagine them trying to complete their worksheets alone.

Some students even have dropped out of touch with schools completely. Educators can’t reach them by phone or email as their families struggle with the pandemic’s broader health and economic impacts.

How can low-income students catch up?

There is no precedent for what’s happening right now. Schools have weathered disruptive disasters like the California wildfires or Hurricane Katrina, but those disasters only lasted for a short period and affected a small region. This pandemic affects every state in the country. With each state ordering or recommending closing schools through the end of the academic year, educators need to act fast.

Some regions consider bringing children back to school in waves to maintain social distancing. Many schools assess whether to forgo online learning and keep students in the same grade when they go back to school. Other educators push for mass promotion. But this requires diagnostic tests at the beginning of the next school year to see where the kids are and how much they have missed.

Schools and society as a whole can’t act like this is business as usual. Like many adults, low-income students need to cope with the pandemic’s economic, health, and psychological impacts. Their lack of conducive learning space, technology, and time to log on shouldn’t put them at a stark disadvantage.

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