Has the pandemic exacerbated the widening disparity in education access for the underprivileged?

The global pandemic has been hard for all students, especially those with economically and socially challenged backgrounds. Since the start of the pandemic, the learning model has changed dramatically for students around the world. While there were challenges in education access for certain groups of students, the pandemic has exacerbated the existing disparities and I would like to address that here. I have analyzed the data from Census Bureau and its interpretation by several sources to synthesize my observations on potential factors that lead to the education divide. 

Online learning has become the mainstay for education for the entire globe. Hence, access to a computer and the internet has become even more important than ever to ensure students continue to learn during the pandemic. While students in more privileged communities have been able to quickly get their resources ready and adapt to online learning, economically disadvantaged students have been forced to scramble for viable educational options. My family was able to support one student without a computer, but that neighborly assistance was insufficient to address the problem. His school could not set up online classrooms and the child did not have any form of classroom learning during the pandemic! Several millions of students around the world have lost a valuable year of learning/education due to lack of access to laptops, internet connectivity, books, and other such resources. Have you wondered why students would not have access to online learning? 

Lack of computer access and internet connectivity is a big factor that led to students’ inability to have continued education through online learning during the pandemic (USAFACT based on September 2020 NCES data). According to the Household Pulse Survey by National Center for Education Statistics in September 2020, over 8.5 million school children in the United States did not have proper access to a computer.

A similar gap exists with online connectivity, with over 7 million school-going children having little or no access to the internet. While this number has come down slightly since March 2020, through support from schools and school districts, lack of access to a computer and/or the internet continues to have an immense big impact on learning. How can these children do their homework, complete assessments, and even learn from their peer group? Technology challenges were already adding to the “Homework Gap”(inability to do homework due to lack of internet access) resulting in such children (who do not have internet access) having to do a lot of catchup. With the pandemic, as education moved online, this digital divide is now even more pronounced.

Why do some households not have a computer or access to the internet? As reported by USAFACT, over a third said that they could not afford it. Many that could afford one computer saw siblings sharing the computer for their classes. Not surprisingly, this problem worsens with lower household income (as per USAFACT data shown to the left). In my experience, this is a global problem. I conduct English reading and writing classes every Friday night for middle school students in rural India. All students use their parents’ cell phone to attend the class through Zoom.

I send the class notes through WhatsApp. Not the most efficient channel to work with, but better than nothing. These families cannot afford a computer and devices are often shared. Given that digital education is here to stay, should the schools look to find solutions that provide free laptops and internet? Corporate sponsorship could be another solution as companies are always looking for ways to serve the larger community. An alternate and a cheaper solution could be for schools to set up digital kiosks and keep them open beyond school hours for students to use. Income gap is not the only factor that explains the lack of digital access leading to the education divide. Factors like geography and race add to the divide as well. Lack of broadband facilities in rural areas of the United States has been recognized as a “digital divide” problem but the impact during the pandemic resulted in 4% more children in the rural areas having no access to online learning due to lack of internet (USAFACT). Giving free computers in such areas would not solve the problem. The government would also need to support deeper penetration of broadband in the rural areas. Race also shows the disparity in computer and internet access (NCES September 2020). Over a third of American Indian and Native Alaskan do not have access to a computer and internet, with the Black community showing a closer trend. A combination of economic situation and rural effect may have led to this gap.

There were gaps in education access even before the pandemic, however, the pandemic has made this gap worse.  Given the move to online classrooms, we saw that an additional 8.5 million children in the United States do not have access to any form of education. These disparities, exacerbated by the pandemic, are a symptom of a larger underlying problem. The issues causing educational disparities, worsened by the pandemic, are deep due to historical and cultural reasons and need holistic educational policy reforms. In my future posts, I will talk about solutions to these problems, with a focus on a policy-oriented approach.

Sources:

  1. Week 14 of the Household Pulse Survey based on data collected from September 2 through 14 by cenus departnement 
  2. Week 27 of the Household Pulse Survey based on data collected from March 17 to March 29 by cenus department
  3. Average children per household: https://www.statista.com/statistics/718084/average-number-of-own-children-per-family/ by Statistica
  4. USA Facts: https://usafacts.org/articles/internet-access-studholHouseents-at-home/
  5. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2020/12/03/how-is-covid-19-affecting-student-learning/
  6. https://voxeu.org/article/impact-covid-19-education
  7. NEA News: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/homework-gap-cruelest-part-digital-divide
  8. Image 1 source – UNESCO: https://en.unesco.org/news/startling-digital-divides-distance-learning-emerge
  9. Image 2 source – NSBA: https://nsba.org/Advocacy/Federal-Legislative-Priorities/Homework-Gap
  10. https://www.govtech.com/network/Study-Millions-of-US-Students-Are-Without-Home-Internet.html

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