A Growing Rift in Educational Disparities

Online schooling, made necessary by COVID-19, has exposed and severely exacerbated the deeply embedded inequities in our current education system

Students fall behind and grades plummet, and many even resort to dropping out altogether. Teachers and pupils alike are tormented daily by eternal loading screens and internet connection failure. Online learning material is spurned as a chore, and student engagement diminishes with muted audio and black screens. Though in some ways, fully distant learning could be beneficial in allowing flexibility or self-paced advancement, these advantages are only available to a minority of privileged students. 

The switch to online schooling has, in many ways, exposed and exacerbated educational inequalities and has laid bare the reasons why physical schooling is still so prevalent in a digital age.

Many parents agree that virtual learning is simply not as effective, engaging, or rigorous as schooling in-person. But generally, wealthier students have the opportunity to circumvent these issues and supplement lost education. “School pods,” groups of 3-4 students taught in-person by a privately hired tutor, “will be the purview of the rich (or at least the richer),” whereas those without money or without motivating families are left without the extra leverage. 

The effect on Pre-K and kindergarten students is especially detrimental, as younger years are a critical time in development. While some families will have the ability to simulate a school environment by keeping students engaged, reading books, and recreating social connections at home, other disadvantaged or working families will lose out. 

Wealthier families often have greater access to the option of private schooling as public schools struggle in maintaining funding, technology, and educational inequality. By enrolling their children in private schools that have the benefits of more manageable class sizes, availability of outdoor spaces for in-person schooling, and funding for COVID-19 tests and sanitizations. Further adding fuel to the fire, the Trump administration is pushing funding for private schools during this time, rather than assisting struggling public schools.

Wealthier, more involved parents will push their children and provide their best education during the pandemic, and are oftentimes “better able to insulate their children against long-term setbacks”. Perhaps a few disadvantaged yet motivated students will persist online. But others, those that really needed this year to boost their grades, or those who are already academically weak, will fall behind online. Without tutoring and possibly without constant familial encouragement, many students may drop out, further widening the achievement gap.

Discrepancies in infection rates play another role in this growing educational chasm. Ethnic minority groups are more prone to infection and hospitalization with COVID-19, as many people of color hold higher-risk essential occupations, have lesser access to health care, and already experience income inequities. Students of color are, therefore, more likely to miss instruction and fall behind if they get sick or need to protect sick family members. Studies show that while an “average student could fall seven months behind academically,” Black and Hispanic students are projected to experience even greater losses, “equivalent to 10 months for black children and nine months for Latinos”. 

Pre-existing technological disparities further the divergence in education between lower-income and upper-class families. With fewer options for after-school tutoring, library access, computer labs, or free wifi, students without sufficient options at home will struggle. Although some schools may provide technology to those in need, a school-provided device cannot ensure a stable internet connection or learning environment.

However, there are so many ways that schools can prevent the continuation of such disparities. The root cause of many of these problems lies in insufficient funding for schools and districts to best support all students regardless of financial background, and as such, this is an area in which both community and government support is necessary. For teachers facilitating remote learning classrooms, UNESCO also recommends effective digital learning management systems, curriculum platforms, self-directed content, and collaborative apps for students. 

Schools should continue to provide technology, recorded zoom meetings, extra office hours, or tutoring sessions for students who may need extra support. Because school for many students provided therapy and nutrition, mental health check-in days as well as meals should continually be provided.

Since many issues with online schooling in the spring arose with the looseness of scheduling in students’ days, distance learning this fall should continue to provide students with a stricter structure to their days. This may encourage students to stay in school and keep them motivated and working.

By adjusting online schooling and providing more inclusive options, schools can minimize the educational disparity COVID-19 is causing. 

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