The COVID-19 outbreak in the United States has school districts scrambling to switch to remote learning. Entire states have either closed their public schools, or they are preparing to, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In New Jersey, in the school district where I work, we are following the guidance of Governor Phil Murphy, who recently shuttered schools, restaurants, and malls. Before Murphy’s announcement, we only had two half-days to put together learning activities and other assignments that can be done remotely. The result was a fusion of online classwork and paper packets with the goal of, theoretically, accounting for students without Internet access.
However, the elephant in the room is still there: How can you ensure quality instruction if many of your students can’t get on the Internet? Even if you hand students their assignments on paper, how are teachers supposed to grade them if we’re all “social distancing?” These questions are especially vexing for any educator who teaches in a low-income area, myself included.
Across the country, one-third of households with children aged six to seventeen, and whose incomes fall below $30,000 a year, do not have high-speed Internet at home. For households earning $75,000 or more, only 6 percent lack a stable Internet connection. This disparity is even more troubling when the statistics are broken down by race, as nearly 40 percent of low-income black and brown families go without decent web access.
More than half of the students in my district are black or Latinx, and 65 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Being unable to regularly use the Internet poses a challenge for black students, in particular.
Our district recently began providing free meals for students to pick up. Large cities like New York and Philadelphia are doing the same. But in the School District of Philadelphia, where over 50 percent of students are black and 100 percent of all students qualify for free lunch, remote instruction is now banned for equity reasons. Even a majority white suburban district in Seattle is debating whether remote instruction would be equitable for its students, but I digress.
Being unable to regularly use the Internet poses a challenge for black students, in particular. According to a recent study, one-quarter of black teens say they can’t always finish their homework due to the digital divide—13 percent of them say this happens often, whereas just 4 percent of white teens and 6 percent of Latinx teens say they have the same problem.
Right now, in the midst of this global pandemic, most of the nation’s schools have closed. Moving forward, school districts should learn from this experience to be more prepared for future incidents. Along with a failure to address the digital divide, not all schools have the capacity to continue instruction online.
As we grapple with these times, here are some tips for improving the ability of schools to provide remote learning:
1. More uniformity: School leaders must work with content area teachers and department heads to chart a baseline level of uniformity for texts, assignments, and grade weights. While all districts should adjust this to their particular needs, standards for content and materials would make a transition from in-person learning to remote learning a bit more seamless.
2. Preload Laptops or USBs with everything students need: Rather than relying on apps that require the Internet, why not put everything on a device? With data preloaded, we can ensure that students without high-speed Internet still have the tools to learn. One downside to this is that teachers cannot provide immediate feedback, but the gains in accessibility may be more of a priority.
3. Provide families with free Wi-Fi: Most Internet providers offer hotspot capabilities as part of their service packages. Schools could set up a hotspot at a designated location. This way, when schools assign laptops to students, those without Internet at home can at least have one option for staying in touch with their teachers.
Implementing these strategies may be easier said than done. Some, such as giving students preloaded hard drives, would certainly come at a cost. And designing uniform curricula is a time-consuming process. But being ready to adequately meet students’ needs isn’t something we can skimp out on. If nothing else, COVID-19 has shown us that having better remote systems in place is a necessity.