In education, inequity takes many forms. While the impacts of this are felt in all levels of education, though, the root cause remains the same—educational inequity stems from an unequal distribution of financial and human resources. This uneven allocation widens the divide between high-poverty schools and affluent ones. Schools on the lower end of that bell curve cannot provide the same quality curricula and learning supports that schools on the upper end boast. For disadvantaged students, this creates another divide between their academic experiences and those of their advantaged peers.
In the unfortunate wake of COVID-19-related school closures, this inequity is more prevalent than ever. Now, we see educational inequity not just within the confines of the school building; we also see it in terms of technology and locale. For students from low-income families, many who are children of color, the disadvantages associated with lower-quality education are stacking up. What are these disparities, and what impacts do they have?
Disparity in Contingencies
A Gallup Panel survey conducted in March sheds light on the diversity of contingency plans schools put in place for students. The poll gathered education resources used by K–12 students whose schools closed due to COVID-19. Seven out of 10 parents reported that their children are continuing education via online learning programs run by their respective academic institutions. However, even within this camp, methodologies differ. Some schools have given parents the reins to conduct homeschooling efforts (26%). Many have prepared their own modified lesson plans to be completed via the web (70%). Still, almost a quarter of polled parents report using either formal (paid) or informal (free) online learning programs not associated with their children’s schools (22%).
Although the same Gallup Panel poll noted that a majority of parents are not concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their children’s education (59%), potential educational disparities exist in these various contingencies. Not only is the quality of education received differing from household to household—perhaps even child to child—but the content of it, too.
Education policy expert Douglas Harris suggests that school funding and technology inequities make it difficult for high poverty districts to supply parents and students with necessary resources. Federal education laws, particularly for education niches like special education, may not offer the guidance necessary for districts to both comply with the law and effectively serve their student populations.
Disparity in Technology
For many families, this contingency disparity is an unfortunate circumstance, but one that cannot be mitigated. As of March 20th, school closures have impacted approximately 44 million American children. With working and studying from home becoming the new norm, software as a service (SaaS) and collaborative technologies are more critical than ever.
Despite the newfound reliance on these technologies, inequity and inequality complicate matters. The digital divide inevitably will increase achievement gaps as many students face an impossible job when trying to complete assignments without necessary technology. In an exposé on the homework gap in the coronavirus era, science and urban technology writer Linda Poon pinpoints cities like Glendale, “where residents are largely immigrant, of lower income, or part of the refugee community.” Those areas experience lower Internet-at-home rates than more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods.
Linda Poon also brings up Pew Research Center studies between 2015 and 2018, which report that approximately 15 percent of households with K–12 children lack Internet access while one in five teens struggle to complete assignments due to unreliable computer and Internet access. Both studies demonstrated the correlation between these issues and low-income or minority families.
Keep in mind that schools are not the only institutions that have closed their doors—closures of libraries, coffee shops, and other free institutions mean that computers and even Wi-Fi are more challenging to access.
Even for households that can access this technology through their own reliable networks or the generosity of schools and communities, trouble-shooting has become another issue. In Connecticut, Hartford Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said that 80 trouble-shooting employees received nearly 2,000 inquiries between March 27th and March 30th.
Short-term solutions for these inequities won’t provide the long-term solutions our country needs to help every child succeed. As school districts scramble to offer quality education under stressful circumstances, federal and state governments must acknowledge the widening divide that plagues our education system.