The coronavirus has upended our way of life, especially in urban America, where social distancing has replaced the laughter of children playing on the street, the excitement of preparing for graduation and prom, and the frenzy of last-minute test preparation. Instead, educators are being forced to think creatively about how to efficiently deliver instruction to their students, especially since they can have no physical contact with them.
Many of them are more than up to the task. Dedicated educators are emailing and snail mailing homework assignments and lesson plans, collaborating on assignments by telephone, engaging with colleagues using all kinds of technology. And many of them, the best of them, miss their students and continue to work as collaboratively as they can.
But the digital divide matters with much of our education, work, and communication taking place remotely. Andrew Perrin, a researcher at the Pew Research Organization, has studied the digital divide. He notes that while African Americans, Hispanics, and white Americans have nearly equal access to smartphones (about 80 percent of each population), whites are more likely than African Americans and Hispanics to have desktop or laptop computers. This differential access has implications for students and the achievement gap. While anyone can access the Internet through a smartphone, some learning is better facilitated with a larger screen. The computer access gap is likely to be reflected in the achievement gap.
African American and Hispanic households are less likely to have home-based broadband than whites are. The broadband issue is significant when some classes are being streamed, or when people need to use electronic connections like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Cisco WebX, that require more bandwidth than students may have. Furthermore, the closure of libraries hits the African American harder than others because African Americans are more likely than either job search, but others are likely there for educational purposes.
There’s more. Parents who don’t have the luxury to stay at home may also not be able to take the time to help with homework. We know that African Americans, especially African American women, are more likely to work in lower-paying service jobs, and may find it grueling, to help with homework after a long day’s work. Instead, they may get verbal thanks, but not the hazard pay they deserve.
Some institutions and individuals are stepping to the plate, asking friends, churches, and others for help in finding computers, purchasing internet access for students, developing partnerships with corporations, and more. While these efforts are necessary and appreciated, a systemic approach to the achievement gap and the way the coronavirus may have exacerbated it, makes sense.
There are opportunities to address the digital divide and the achievement gap through coronavirus relief money. About $3 billion in emergency education aid will be available to state governors, and according to Politico, Education Secretary Betsey DeVos says governors can use the money as they will. She suggests they use it for online learning. Governors should use some of these dollars to narrow the achievement gap by targeting those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. That will make it clear that even during a time of crisis, we can still concern ourselves with equity issues, particularly as they affect young people.
Every child will have her education altered by adjustments made because of the coronavirus. Race, class, income, and access (and all are correlated) will determine how the changes impact the learning function. Young people who may have already been behind, with verbal and mathematical deficiencies, may find their gap widening. Whether educators are dealing with college and graduate students, whether they are dealing with those precious preschoolers, or college-bound high school students, the success of the fall 2020 semester will require planning and some remediation.
Since it is clear that Internet access is essential for both youngsters and adults, doesn’t it make sense to provide every school-age child with a fully loaded laptop? Doesn’t it make sense for cities, especially, to be fully wired with broadband? What does it take to make education a national priority?
Reverend Jesse Jackson, founded the RainbowPUSH Coalition and appointed me President of the education branch of the organization, PUSH Excel Board. In a Board call, he raised the question, perhaps rhetorical, of whether the coronavirus will widen the achievement gap. Any crisis that hits this country will both illustrate and exacerbate inequality. The issue is not whether coronavirus widens the achievement gap. The issue is what we can do about it. The first step is to urge governors to be mindful of the achievement gap when they apportion their share of that emergency education aid.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, former college president and economic educator. For more information please visit www.juliannemalveaux.com.