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Humans and technology

The children being left behind by America’s online schooling

For many students shut out of classrooms, attempts to substitute e-learning will set them back even further.
May 13, 2020
Conceptual illustration of a student sitting in a window that shows large ethernet cords plugged in around her
Cathryn Virginia

Like most children in the US, Juana* hasn’t been to school in two months. Her mother, Dilma, left school after first grade and doesn’t speak English. Until recently, the family in Oakland, California, only had a very simple cell phone they used to make calls home to family in Guatemala. 

Without a computer to connect to her teachers and friends, Juana started to fall behind. While other children in the US were having full lessons on Zoom, she spent the first month of quarantine just practicing the alphabet and learning to count in Spanish. It was only a few weeks ago—well into the shutdown, which in California began March 16—that Juana finally received a school-issued Chromebook. But she still didn’t have internet access. The family didn’t have a wireless connection at home, and Dilma had never connected to the internet on her cell phone before.

It was Juana’s teacher, Sara Shepich, who figured out how to get them online. Since mid-March, Shepich has spent hours on the phone with her students’ parents, local internet providers, her school’s administration, and her union attempting to get Chromebooks and Wi-Fi for her students and their families. If she’s lucky, she’s able to talk to students through WhatsApp or FaceTime. In the month immediately after the crisis hit, almost none of them had been fully set up with a Chromebook and internet connectivity.

The coronavirus crisis is exacerbating the long-standing digital divide in the US, highlighting unequal access to technology. When schools were ordered to close, underfunded districts suddenly found themselves struggling to equip students stuck at home. As every week of school closures passes, many poor students are falling further behind. 

For Shepich’s students and their families the problem is made worse because they are from a part of Guatemala that speaks Mam, a Mayan language that has little in common with Spanish. Many of the families are not only undocumented but also lack the communication skills and paperwork necessary to register for internet access at home.

“The last day of school was very crazy,” Shepich says. “At 9 a.m., our principal got word that we wouldn’t be coming back for a couple of weeks. We had a Google form with teachers writing down what kids should do for two to four weeks”—most of it inaccessible for many of Shepich’s students—“and the administration trying to get more information. Other schools sent home Chromebooks, but I was putting this packet of four sheets together with the website for kindergarten, throwing books at them as they left for the day.” 

Shepich’s district is just a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley, where tech companies had promised early on to distribute free technology. Google, in particular, promised to donate 4,000 Chromebooks and 100,000 Wi-Fi spots across California. Governor Gavin Newsom praised the company, saying, “We need more Googles.”

But 4,000 Chromebooks barely make a dent. A recent report from EdSource found that 1.2 million students in California lack access to a device or the internet.

Halfway across the country, a very different scenario is playing out in the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), which also struggles with poverty, lower-than-expected test scores, and underfunding.

“When you look at comparable cities of the same size and demographics, Detroit is last in terms of families’ access to technology and devices,” says Pamela Moore, the president and CEO of the DPS Foundation. Only 10 to 15% of students had internet-connected devices, she says: “The digital divide is real for us.”

But unlike many of their peers in Oakland, students in Detroit are receiving a free tablet and access to the internet. That’s partly because of better planning. Moore says DPSCD started creating a plan in February. The school district superintendent is working with Moore, the local utility DTE Energy, Quicken Loans (the corporate headquarters are in Detroit), and the Skillman Foundation, among others, to raise $23.3 million. 

That cash injection was enough to provide every student with a pre-loaded Windows tablet, plus six months of free internet access and technical support for them and their families, by July. After that, families pay $9.99 a month; those who are financially struggling can apply for hardship relief. DPSD also set up robocalls to make sure students are on track, with teachers doing follow-ups to ensure that the sizable special needs population doesn’t fall behind.

Compare that with Juana’s situation in Oakland. Dilma, who doesn’t work, says Juana’s father is working just to two to three days a week now, down from seven. The family is being charged $30 a month for internet access, even though they have almost no expendable income. Dilma says she and Juana’s father value their daughter’s education and will keep paying the money, even if it means making other sacrifices.

Tim Douglas, a kindergarten teacher at another Oakland school, says he has set up a YouTube channel and held Zoom classes, but they are only partially attended. Even if families have a computer, they’re often shared between siblings, with competing classroom times and shoddy internet that can often crash when students try to use Zoom or YouTube. So he’s settled on having long phone calls with kids as much as he can. “I talk to parents for about half an hour—ask them what they’re cooking, what’s keeping them sane,” he says. “Sometimes I talk to the kids for a half-hour, show them my garden and my house. It’s really humbling.”

Around 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet, according to a report in February from Broadband Now, an internet data analysis company. In 2019, a Pew Research Foundation report found that 1 in 10 Americans had access to the internet only via their smartphones. That disparity in access can have serious secondary effects not only for students but for their families, says David Deming, a professor of public policy at Harvard who studies how access to the internet affects inequality.

Citing studies looking at the impact of interruptions in schooling during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and teacher strikes in Argentina, he fears the current disruption will have a “permanent effect” on the poorer students. “We’re going to see a widening of educational inequality that will last a long time and won’t fade away,” he predicts. 

Families that have ready access to technology are better equipped to ride out the current school shutdown. If you’re better off, you can enroll your child in virtual camps or download educational games or apps that will keep skills sharp when schools are closed. If you’re poorer, that’s not a possibility. “Income buys you the ability to buffer unforeseen shocks,” says Deming.

That buffering effect was illustrated in a 2013 study by Stanford economist Sean Reardon, which found that while the gap between poorer and wealthier children narrowed during the school year, it widened during the summer. That’s because students who can access summer enrichment activities come back in the fall better prepared to take on a new school year; poorer students will often spend the first several weeks catching up on skills they’ve forgotten during the summer break. 

Apart from better planning by school districts, one way to bridge this gap is to make sure all students have access to the internet, regardless of income levels. It’s essential that poorer students have access to Wi-Fi to help ensure they don’t fall behind in a crisis like this, says Deming, who believes high-speed broadband should be universally available. “Broadband has become so essential to modern life it ought to be thought of as a public utility,” he says. 

Meanwhile, as the school year slips into summer, Shepich recalls when she first met Juana: a girl who was eager to learn but could barely hold a pencil. Before the crisis, she had made small steps in improvement, but the shutdown has probably reversed those, Shepich fears. “She’s the first in her family to learn English and be literate,” she says. “But I’m worried about her. What’s going to happen?”

*name changed to protect the privacy and identity of an undocumented minor

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