COVID-19 Spotlights Education Inequalities
The fight for education equity and decreasing disparities has been an ongoing battle in this country for decades. Now we are faced with a pandemic that requires students to have access to the protections that are deeply embedded within their school environments.
For some disadvantaged students, school is not just a place of learning, but a sanctuary where they have consistent and predictable meals, access to healthcare and digital technology, as well as safeguarding and supervision.
COVID-19 and school closures have deprived students of personalized education that meets their needs, as well as sacrifices to their overall physical and mental wellbeing. Even within the first few weeks of turning our nation’s education system completely remote, COVID-19 has beamed a glaring spotlight on the severity of education inequality.
Children come from very different backgrounds and have very different resources, opportunities, and support outside of school. Now that their entire learning lives are outside of school, those differences and disparities come into vivid view.
And children from lower-income families are more likely to be disadvantaged by the lack of access to technology, known as the digital divide—a term used to describe the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who don’t. So, what happens to students who don’t have the access to technology?
According to Mercy Home’s Education Coordinator Maria Naumann, they disengage completely, which widens the achievement gap for disadvantaged youth.
“I have three youth on my caseload who have very limited access to technology,” she said. “One student has no WiFi in his home, which means it is close to impossible for him to complete any online learning requirements. Though his school provides printed homework for pickup daily, he and his family live over an hour away and have very limited access to transportation, which makes this an unrealistic option. This student is already functioning six years behind grade level, has a learning disability, and an IEP. He is not able to join Zoom meetings with his school peers and teachers. This pandemic has only made clearer educational inequalities in the city of Chicago.”
Lauren Brooks, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Chicago Public Schools’ Langston Hughes Elementary, echoes those same sentiments as it relates to her students and lack of accessibility to succeed in this pandemic.
“Trying to successfully teach utilizing online tools has proven to be extremely difficult, especially for my students from impoverished neighborhoods that lack the knowledge, skills, and resources to work remotely,” she said. “Even being provided laptops by CPS, they still don’t have internet access in their homes and [are] trying to complete work on a cellular device.”
Brooks agrees that school was a safe haven for her students outside of the support with their academic work.
“At home, they don’t have parental support, proper nutrition, structure/discipline, [or] consistent routines and this is furthering their achievement gap,” she said.
Natalie Mitchell, an eighth grade literacy teacher at The University of Chicago Charter School, agrees and taps into the component of education being a priority for many youth in poverty.
“Overwhelmingly, Chicago students want to do well and be successful,” she said. “They want to be in school. They do not want to fall behind on school work and they and their families should not have to contend with the notion that having less money and access to technology at home can be a barrier to education.”
Overall, communities and school districts are going to have to adapt to get students on a level playing field. We have to find some middle ground, and that means the state and local school districts are going to have to act urgently to fill in the gaps in technology and internet access. Additionally, we must think of innovative ways to provide families with the structure and consistency that lived within their school environments.