I graduated from high school in 2007. Computer and internet access mattered then and it matters even more now. Every year since then it has become more and more clear: Computer and internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity—and COVID-19 is proving this to be true.
As Coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeps across the country, school districts all over are shutting their doors. Most opting instead to serve students through distance learning strategies such as work packets or “E-Learning.” E-Learning seems to be the most popular last resort for schools.
With that being said, almost nobody thinks that E-Learning is a suitable replacement for in-person instruction. It’s the last resort for a reason. But some students don’t even have this option readily available to them.
An estimated 17% of US students don’t have access to a computer at home and around 18% don’t have access to broadband internet. And there is little doubt that those groups mostly overlap and are more concentrated among certain demographics and areas. These numbers have been used to reference what has become colloquially known as the “homework gap”, referring to the obstacles students face when completing assignments at home. But when schools are forced to resort to E-Learning, all of the work becomes homework, and when all of the work becomes homework, the homework gap now becomes a schoolwork gap.
This is the reality that many schools are facing.
The schools with the most need are scrambling to find ways to keep students engaged. Some students obviously do have computer and internet access but in many schools, particularly in underserved areas, this percentage is too small to feel good about E-Learning as a serviceable alternative. Moreover, these schools have the least experience with the concept. Many suburban schools already have E-Learning plans in place for snow days and have used them from time to time. This isn’t the case for most urban schools because they never viewed E-Learning as a viable alternative… and it still isn’t but unfortunately, it’s the only one they have left.
That’s not to say that the closures don’t hurt those suburban students either because they do, but the degree to which those students will be behind when they finally return to school is far less than their under-resourced counterparts.
I work in an inner-city school. We are currently conducting E-Learning with mixed results. For the students that have access, I can keep up with their progress, assign them specific work, even help them in real-time. For the students without, I’m virtually left in the dark. I do have contact with families, and they are working on things at home too but it’s not the same and it’s not as effective. Also, not so coincidentally, the students who need my help the most are typically not the ones that have access to the online programs we use. It is somewhat frustrating that is has come to this because contrary to popular belief this problem isn’t new.
I don’t have a better solution for this. Maybe we subsidize internet and internet-accessible devices. Some schools give students technology for this very reason, maybe we should replicate that model. Maybe we need to start thinking about the internet as a public utility like water, gas, and electricity. I don’t know. What I do know is that as schools retreat further into online platforms, they will leave many students behind.