Pandemic school closures widen the digital divide

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School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic will result in student learning loss. This is a huge challenge all students will face, but inner-city students will have even more barriers to overcome in the upcoming weeks and months of home-based schooling.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/04/2020 (904 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic will result in student learning loss. This is a huge challenge all students will face, but inner-city students will have even more barriers to overcome in the upcoming weeks and months of home-based schooling.

The sudden shift to the online delivery of education has brought a significant transition for students, families and teachers. Connecting with teachers to get education support will be more difficult for inner-city students and their families, because many don’t have computers or internet access in their homes.

This “digital divide,” the gap between low-income families and middle/upper-income families in terms of their ability to access digital tools and the internet, creates dire consequences for inner-city students and has been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.

According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, roughly 35 per cent of households with an annual income below US$30,000 a year did not have high-speed internet connections at home, compared with just six per cent of such households earning $75,000 or more annually.

A 2013 Statistics Canada report indicated that 42 per cent of households in the lowest-income quartile did not have home internet access, compared with just two per cent of households in the top income quartile.

Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the largest urban public school districts in the U.S., maintains that “our biggest challenge will be how to ensure equity” with respect to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Casserly further states, “I have great concern around the unfinished learning we may face when students go back to school next fall. When schools reopen, we are likely to face not only the instruction for the new year but also a lot of catch-up instruction, especially with our struggling students.”

The evidence on summer learning loss can be used to help us understand the likely effect of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer learning loss refers to the loss of knowledge and academic skills over the summer months, when students are out of school.

Research indicates summer learning loss is experienced more harshly by students in lower socioeconomic communities and families; it can result in the equivalent of up to three months of declines in measures of grade-level equivalency, and its effect is cumulative, with lower-income students falling behind their more affluent peers as they advance to high school.

The digital divide complicates educators’ efforts to continue instruction during this pandemic and deepens the impact of the inevitable COVID-19 learning loss. Bedong Chen’s 2015 study, which explored the digital divide in Ontario public schools, identified three levels of intervention to address the digital divide: school infrastructure — hardware, software and internet access support for technology; teachers’ knowledge and ability to use technology in the classroom; and parental capacity to access and support internet use in the home for educational purposes.

Some key digital equity strategies in inner-city communities that support students and families for online or out-of-school learning have involved school districts partnering with community organizations to: provide “homework hotspots” in the local neighbourhood for students without home internet access; work with internet service providers to offer discounted high-speed internet plans for low-income households; establish mobile hot spot lending programs, including Wi-Fi hot spot devices and laptops; and develop initiatives for community-based Wi-Fi capacity for free internet to households with students who register for this education-focused broadband connectivity service with local schools and community organizations.

The Manitoba government’s community school legislation is well-suited to support the role of neighbourhood schools in low-income communities to be “resources hubs” for families to address the growing digital divide. School libraries could become a “learning commons” and modernize their role from gatekeeper of books to a digital equity resource that works with local community partners to develop connectivity initiatives, lend mobile hot spot devices similar to their present book-lending role, and provide digital literacy education for students, parents and community residents.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that bridging the digital divide is not an option, but a necessity. Schools cannot address this issue on their own. The community, philanthropic, private and public sectors need to work together with schools to remove these digital barriers for inner-city students and their families, for now and in the future.

Tom Simms is co-director of the Community Education Development Association, a non-profit community development organization that has served the inner city since 1979.

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