The COVID-19 pandemic forced American students, teachers, and families to move learning online. Unfortunately, the transition has been messy and revealed glaring disparities among populations. While remote education has been life-changing for some, it has been markedly challenging for lower-income communities.
Inequities have long been present in the American education system. However, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated these issues. Amidst school closures, low-income communities, rural communities, and communities of color have struggled to adjust to remote schooling.
Unlike more affluent communities, the requirements necessary for online learning are sometimes inaccessible to working-class and rural families. Even as the country prepares for the government to begin distributing the first vaccine doses, the end of the pandemic is still not close to ending, which means that students could be remote schooling for the foreseeable future. It will be up to the new administration to take steps to equalize education and help lower-income communities overcome the challenges of online learning.
In lower-income communities, many families rely on schools for access to the internet, technology, and other necessary tools for education. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to stay home, many households weren’t equipped to accommodate remote learning. Some places in America don’t have high-speed internet availability, and for many people, the price of a computer or tablet is simply too high.
As a result of the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs, which makes investing in technology difficult. The economic fallout from COVID-19 has hit lower-income families the hardest. More than 280,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and for families that lost the primary breadwinner, the financial hardship is overwhelming.
Without access to technology and a reliable internet connection, online learning from home is simply not an option in lower-income communities. In addition to being a means of accessing the internet and other vital technology for education, schools also provide meals for low-income students and childcare. Stressed parents searching for someone to watch their children add to the challenges of remote schooling in lower-income communities.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some people still believed that access to the internet was a luxury. However, the current crisis has exposed the fact that a reliable broadband connection is essential. The sudden reliance on remote learning as students and teachers switch to virtual classrooms has brought to light the country’s deep digital divide.
If the pandemic continues past the fall semester and into the future, steps must be taken to equalize education so that a generation of students don’t fall behind. To start, all K-12 and college students must have accessible technology. Even before the pandemic, many low-income students didn’t have access to an adequate internet connection at home.
Fortunately, broadband providers recognize that internet access isn’t a privilege but, rather, a necessity. AT&T and Verizon are among the companies that signed the Keep Americans Connected Pledge which promises to waive late fees and establish more Wi-Fi hotspots. If education is truly to be equalized, the new administration must harness the current goodwill of internet service providers to create long-lasting change.
Local funders are stepping up their philanthropic efforts to bridge the digital divide in lower-income communities, but requests for help continue to pour in. The sudden and messy transition to remote schooling has revealed a need far deeper than a few (or, even, many) donated computers. For example, despite the New York Community Trust raising more than $95 million for its COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund, the organization is still receiving requests to develop online content for core academic subjects and provide students hardware.
While the efforts of nonprofits and internet service providers are helping, the federal government must take up the torch if America’s digital divide is going to be bridged once and for all. The new administration must prioritize helping lower-income communities handle the challenges of remote schooling. The new administration can work with Congress to provide additional funding to outfit students with the necessary hardware, instruct teachers on the skills needed for succeeding in an online classroom, and ensure every American has a reliable internet connection.
Remote schooling has presented a variety of challenges, and no group has been hit harder than lower-income communities. From inadequate internet access to a lack of technology, online learning from home is nearly (if not entirely) impossible for many people living in rural communities and communities of color. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the digital divide in America, but it has reignited the conversation around it. With the help of nonprofits and internet service providers, the new administration must address the challenges of remote schooling in lower-income communities from the standpoint that the ability to learn from home isn’t a privilege but a fundamental necessity of modern life.