Educational Inequity is NOT Just a Pandemic Problem

It has been almost one month since schools halted in-person instruction due to COVID-19. Students and their families are still adjusting to online learning amid a quarantine. And while many schools have successfully transitioned to online distance-learning, a great number of students are having trouble tuning in, particularly those within low-income, under-resourced communities. This points us to a much deeper issue, one that is rooted in educational inequities that were cemented long before the pandemic.

A System That is Not Equally Built for All

While the state and county acted quickly to move students to an online learning system, what was not accounted for were pre-existing conditions and barriers that prevent students from performing their academic best. In the one month since digital instruction commenced, more than 100,000 of all LAUSD students have yet to report to teachers online. There are several factors to consider both social and physical, including: a lack of internet access and technology at home, a lack of institutional support for working families, and limited resources for children with learning disabilities. Circumstances may vary from household to household but these conditions existed long before the pandemic and are only being exacerbated during this time.

The Digital Divide

This ‘digital divide’ is not something that was caused by COVID-19. The variation in technological infrastructure among schools is decidedly driven by wealth inequality. Schools in more affluent neighborhoods have modernized facilities, and their students come from households that were already well-equipped for distance learning to begin with. In contrast, students in poorer communities are more likely to go to substandard schools with fewer resources at home. An estimated 12 million students in the country do not have internet access at home. Without internet at home, students are more likely to score lower in reading, math and science. At a time when most public schools have transitioned to distance learning, this digital divide is bound to widen, and students who already had hurdles to begin with are pulled even further away from the finish line.

Beyond the Digital Divide: Looking Inside the Home

Prior to the pandemic, it was already difficult for low-income parents to engage with their child’s school. In Los Angeles, over 80 percent of students live in poverty, indicating the dependence families have on the schools’ infrastructure to provide daily meals, tutoring support and day care. And for low-income families that work “essential jobs” in hospitals, grocery stores and other businesses, they have no choice but to go to work every day – all to ensure they can make ends meet. In addition, the financial ramifications are greater for undocumented families who do not qualify for federal aid, bringing in additional stress into the home. This poses challenges to students who are now at home having to care for other siblings, sharing confined spaces or lack the academic support to complete coursework.

For students with learning differences, the barrier is even greater. Nearly 800,000 students in California receive special education services, all of which receive specialized and individual support when in school. Parents with children who have learning differences struggle with not only providing educational training but also social learning – all of which is in development when children are in school working with behavioral professionals. Undocumented and immigrant students are also contending with the changes. For immigrant families, where English is their second language, many face challenges in understanding material that is distributed in English. Without the accommodations they might get in school, families are fearful that their children will regress both academically and socially.

The prospects are even more concerning for students experiencing homelessness – an issue that has been steadily on the rise in recent years. This group of students faces a range of issues including social, physical, mental, financial, and behavioral. Adding academic challenges only compounds an already catastrophic situation.

Breaking Down Solutions that Can Extend Past the Pandemic

If there is ever a more fitting time to regret all the years of disinvestment in under-resourced public schools, it is now. However, the circumstances of today present a unique opportunity to educate the masses on these inequities. Another lesson to gather from the COVID-19 pandemic is how swiftly educational institutions can be spurred into action. In an attempt to address the digital divide, school districts are distributing tablets to students who don’t have an internet-connected device at home, and some have even collaborated with wireless service providers to offer free internet to K-12 students for the duration of distance learning. Higher education has also reacted swiftly: many have opted to go with test-optional admissions, waiving SAT and ACT testing requirements in order to accommodate college applicants that have been affected by testing cancellations. This is a move that has long been appealed for by educational equity advocates, as these standardized tests strongly favor students from more affluent backgrounds in college admissions. Even congress’s stimulus package was passed in record time in an attempt to provide relief to working-class Americans who are experiencing job displacement, housing insecurity and inadequate access to healthcare.

Looking Ahead

While the response to these issues offer some hope, it is equal parts disheartening that it took a pandemic for any action to be taken on these inequities that have been around long before COVID-19. It is uncertain if any of these initiatives to address educational disparities will evolve into more permanent iterations in a post-pandemic society. What is clear is that we do have the means and the infrastructure to address these educational inequities. Yet, to achieve any lasting change, they need to remain a priority even in a world without COVID-19. That is where our role as community-based organizations and fellow neighbors come in – to fight against educational inequities and advocate for funding in under-resourced schools to aid in the development of a diverse and equitable workforce.