There’s no denying that in a matter of a few short months, the novel coronavirus has transformed “normal” life as we knew it. And perhaps the biggest impact has been on our children, who were forced to spend the last months of the 2020 spring semester trying to adjust to distance learning.
Now, as the debate rages about how to keep the schools that have reopened safe, there’s a student population for whom the stakes are especially high.
Despite our best efforts, education in the United States has never yet lived up to its promise of “equality,” but that reality is especially felt today. Students in poor communities simply do not have access to the remote learning resources that more affluent school districts can provide. And they’re paying a dear price.
The first and most significant challenge of remote learning in poor communities, of course, is the lack of access both to the needed technology and to the internet.
Though the digital divide may have shrunk in recent years in the United States, it continues to exist in many of the nation’s poorer communities. That means that millions of American children may not have reliable access to a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or PC.
Even when children have the technology they need to learn remotely, though, they may not have the internet access required to be successful. This could be due to the family’s financial inability to subscribe to a high-speed internet or broadband service, or it could be due to a lack of internet accessibility, especially in poorer rural communities.
In addition to challenges with access, children in impoverished communities are likely facing even more significant problems due to the closure of the schools. More than 35 million children across the United States receive free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches while at school.
In the face of the shutdown, schools turned to pick up lunches to ensure that children received the food they need for as long as the schools remain closed. And yet the children of families who lack transportation to the pick-up site, or whose parents work during the designated pick up times, are at risk of going without.
Even when the tech is available, broadband access is running smoothly, and the cupboards are stocked with nutritious food to keep kids’ bellies full and their minds focused, students in poor communities aren’t necessarily home free.
Remote learning is a challenge under the best of circumstances. However, students in underprivileged environments may lack the resources they need to learn on digital platforms. For some students, screen time can be detrimental to focus and comprehension.
Screens have also been shown to negatively impact children’s quality of sleep, which will only further exacerbate difficulties in concentrating and absorbing new learning content. At the same time, parents are likely already feeling overwhelmed by potential job loss, the financial and psychological strain of the lockdown, and the fear of the virus itself.
In the face of all this, they may feel simply unable to help their child learn in this entirely new way.
Help and Hope
Despite the particular hardships that children in poor communities must face during this shift to remote learning, there is hope. Resources are available to support students and their families living in poverty in this unprecedented time and no matter the need, from housing support and nutritional assistance to access to educational resources and medical care.
Likewise, communities nationwide are finding creative ways to ensure that families have the resources they need. This includes at-home delivery of free and low-cost meals for families without transportation. It even means grassroots initiatives designed to provide rent and mortgage assistance for struggling families and to ensure secure housing for the housing insecure.
And what that all boils down to is the ability to ensure that children’s most fundamental needs are met, from housing to nutrition to remote learning access. Once that’s done, children’s chances of succeeding at distance education are going to be far greater.
The sudden and sweeping transition to remote learning has been proven to be a formidable challenge for students, parents, and teachers alike. However, it is students from poor communities who have had to face the greatest obstacles. This includes not only barriers to technology and broadband access but also challenges in shifting to the digital learning environment itself.
In addition, these children have had to face the specter of hunger and possibly even of homelessness. Their parents have been faced with the overwhelming responsibility of caring for their families through one of the worst crises in modern history. And yet it is possible for students from impoverished communities to thrive in the distance learning environment. What it takes, above all, is the social commitment to ensuring that these children and their families have the support they need and deserve.