In a normal school year, Breanne Wiggins would have been prepared to welcome her new students by now. The curriculum for her fourth grade class, honed over years of teaching, would have been ready. She would have decorated her classroom in bright, inviting colors, multiplication and division tables, and a poster that displays each student’s birthday.
This year, Wiggins’ classroom walls are empty. Because of the uptick of coronavirus cases in Riverside County, California, the Palo Verde Unified School District where she teaches was required by the state to begin remotely. Wiggins' school is in the small desert town of Blythe, which sits on the California-Arizona border and has a population of around 20,000. Nearly 70 percent of students in the school district are on a free or reduced-priced lunch plan, an indicator of a family’s low-income status. Moreover, a 2018 US Census estimate found that 30 percent of households in Blythe do not have broadband internet. Even for those who have access to the internet, outages across town aren’t uncommon, says Wiggins.
With just days left before the start of the school year, she isn’t sure how her students, many of whom do not have access to their own internet-connected devices, are going to fare with another semester of distance learning.
“Teachers know we really do need to prepare," she says. "But we don’t know what to prepare for."
Schools in the US are beginning the year amid an ongoing pandemic and political pressure to reopen classrooms. The Trump administration has been pushing college and K-12 students to return to schools for in-person learning even as infection rates in the United States have soared to 4.83 million. Although most children experience milder symptoms of the virus, a recent summer camp outbreak reveals that children do transmit it. Pediatricians and updated CDC guidelines have encouraged schools to reopen, while the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teacher’s union, moved to support local strikes if schools reopen under unsafe conditions.
Many school districts have already decided against resuming traditional in-person learning, as local infections remain uncontained. According to a tracker by EdWeek, 16 of the 20 largest school districts in the country have announced plans to pursue remote or hybrid learning next year, including New York City, which will begin with a combination of remote and hybrid learning; and school districts in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, which will begin the year remotely.
Last spring’s rapid transition to distance learning has been widely deemed unsuccessful, when the onset of the pandemic prompted schools across the country to shut down, and as access to technology became a digital lifeline to classroom learning. Among the more than 50 million students in the US, an estimated 15 percent live in homes with no access to high-speed internet. And as coronavirus cases rise and districts push forward with online learning, schools are forced to confront, for a second time, the digital divide that was exacerbated last year.
The Digital Divide and the ‘Covid Slide’
Educators have known that inequalities in internet and technology access long preexisted the pandemic, disproportionately impacting Black, Hispanic, Native American, and low-income families. But the pandemic made the digital divide in K-12 education all the more apparent. A Pew Research study found that during the spring lockdown 36 percent of low-income parents reported that their children were unable to complete their schoolwork at home because they did not have access to a computer, compared with just 14 percent of middle-income parents and 4 percent of upper-income parents.
While the state’s larger school districts, like Los Angeles and San Diego, marshaled the resources to provide laptops and network hot spots to thousands of students last spring, Palo Verde Unified School District did not. Instead, PVUSD distributed paper “learning packets” every two weeks. Wiggins also created online lessons, but those were considered optional. She estimates that a third of her fourth grade students reported not having internet access at home, while others shared a single computer between siblings and parents who were also working from home.
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Palo Verde Unified’s response reflects a trend across higher-poverty districts, according to a preliminary survey by the American Institutes for Research. Of the K-12 school districts surveyed, 47 percent of high-poverty districts emphasized physically distributed materials such as paper packets as a “primary component” of their distance learning rollout, compared to just 18 percent of low-poverty districts. The survey found that rural districts, too, were significantly more reliant on physically distributed materials than urban districts.
This year, the gulf between students on either side of the digital divide could widen further. The “summer slide” refers to a long-studied period of learning loss among K-12 students over the summer months, resulting in disproportionate declines for low-income students who may not have access to supplemental summertime learning opportunities that higher-income students do. With the onset of the pandemic, some researchers have already begun warning of a “Covid slide” that could intensify learning loss for already underserved students.
“All of a sudden, we took this 3-month gap and we basically doubled it,” says Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine and director of UCI’s Digital Learning Lab. Following this spring’s school shutdowns, low-income students might have had unreliable access to technology or been charged with caring for younger siblings at home, preventing them from participating fully or at all in online instruction. At the same time, more affluent families have been forming parenting pods and hiring private tutors for their children.
The summer has lent public school districts and teachers some much-needed time to acclimate themselves to online tools and plan for instruction. “But a lot of these inequities such as unequal internet access at home and unequal financial pressures can’t be solved by having a few extra weeks,” he says. “All indications are that the fall, like the spring, is going to be a disaster.”
Public school districts, already expected to provide education and meals, have now been saddled with the additional responsibility of figuring out how to procure, pay for, and distribute basic technology to students. It’s a costly onus: Equipping students and teachers for resumed distance learning in the fall could cost an additional $3.8 billion nationwide, according to an estimate by the American Federation of Teachers.
“If districts don’t receive additional revenue, they will either have to dip into a rainy day fund, ask for additional revenues from the state, or move internal revenues to create more fungible revenue,” says Anthony Rolle, a school finance and economic policy researcher at the University of Rhode Island. He points out that districts might have additional funds from activities that have been stalled by the pandemic, such as sports and busing, that they might reroute into the technological infrastructure to support distance learning. But because the pandemic has so severely slashed state and local tax revenues, many districts are still facing budget shortfalls. Public schools nationwide have had to eliminate almost 500,000 jobs.
“Another round of federal aid would be imperative,” says Rolle. Federal support could come from a Republican stimulus bill, which promises $70 billion in aid for K-12 public and private schools. But the bill could withhold much of those funds from schools that refuse to continue some form of in-person learning.
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Some districts have benefited from philanthropic donations specifically meant to close the digital divide. Oakland Public Schools received a $10 million donation pledge from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. In June, Chicago Public Schools launched an initiative called Chicago Connected, a plan to provide free high-speed internet access to over 100,000 CPS students. Donors to the $50 million initiative include billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin and Barack and Michelle Obama.
“In my mind, the single biggest issue as it relates to educational equity—besides funding, that’s number one, so we won’t lose sight of that—is to make sure that every student has access to high-speed internet across this country,” CPS chief executive officer Janice K. Jackson told WIRED in an interview.
The California Department of Education is currently “scrambling” to distribute internet-connected devices to over 700,000 students and Wi-Fi hot spots for up to 400,000 students, according to state superintendent Tony Thurmond. This year, the district confirmed that it will be providing Chromebooks and hot spots for students to check out. But there could be a one- to two-week delay for the hot spots. "Those students will have to call in and listen to the lessons on the phone instead," says Wiggins.
Even if schools are able to pull together funds and distribute devices to students, they ultimately can’t control what happens at home. Madison Maeshiro, a math teacher at Wai’anae High School in Wai’anae, Hawaii, also relied primarily on paper packets and some online instruction to continue teaching last spring. While the school made Chromebooks and iPads available at a pickup station, Maeshiro estimates that only around 10 of her 60 students were regularly communicating with her online.
“That’s one of the downfalls of remote learning. I can’t guarantee that my students are going to be present,” says Lliana Villegas, who teaches technology and computer science to middle schoolers at PS 96 in East Harlem. As PS 96’s technology coach, she’s also helped train fellow teachers in distance-learning tools to prepare for the fall, which plans to start with a mix of in-person “blended” learning and fully remote instruction. She says she worries about whether this continuation of fully or partially remote learning is going to sufficiently serve students who have special needs, are homeless, or are in the foster system. Her current lesson-planning strategy is “plan for the worst-case scenario and hope for the best.”
Giving children computers also doesn’t address the child-care crisis. Parents, particularly in rural areas and “child-care deserts,” may have to choose between returning to work and staying home to look after their kids.
“Throwing computers into social, educational problems doesn’t really solve them,” says Warschauer, the researcher from UC Irvine. There are, he points out, steps that can be taken to mitigate the unequal impact of school closures, like continuing to train teachers in distance-learning best practices, prioritizing in-person learning for the youngest students, and investing in catch-up after the pandemic. But students’ access to computing devices and reliable broadband will continue to have an outsize impact on their education, as the deleterious effects of the digital divide continue to be deeply felt this school year.
“We’re simply not going to solve this,” says Warschauer. “We can try to do a little bit less bad.”