Schuyler Troy, MJLST Staffer
As we enter what public health experts warn will be the worst phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans have been forced to reckon with the world of remote work—as of June 2020, 42 percent of the U.S. work force was working from home full time. Zoom, the now-ubiquitous video teleconferencing platform, saw an increase in meeting participation from approximately 10 million daily participants in December 2019 to at least 200 million by the end of March 2020. Zoom snafus have taken their place in the cultural zeitgeist, ranging from relatively harmless and even humorous technical snafus to more serious issues like “Zoombombing” and privacy concerns.
Among the more serious problems coming into sharper focus is the effect that remote learning has had on school-aged children, their parents, and their teachers. Without a national strategy regarding how to reopen schools for in-person instruction, states and localities were left to devise what ultimately became a patchwork of solutions. As of September 2, 2020, 73 percent of the largest school districts in the United States had chosen to offer only remote instruction at least to start the year, affecting more than 8 million students.
Early data from this massive shift to remote instruction has revealed some worrying signs. A majority of teachers across the United States report that fewer than half of their students are attending remote classes; 34 percent of teachers report that only 1 in 4 students are attending remote classes. Perhaps more distressing is the data showing stagnation in academic progress. Researchers at Brown University and Harvard University analyzed data gathered for over 800,000 students across the United States and found that through late April 2020, “student progress in math had decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, [and] by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes” as compared to a typical school year. An analysis by McKinsey & Company indicates that the effects on Black and Hispanic students could be even more pronounced.
While racial and socioeconomic education achievement gaps are not new, the shift to remote instruction nationwide appears to have exacerbated them. Pew Research data provides some clues as to one factor that may be driving this phenomenon: lack of access to reliable, high-speed Internet that is necessary for videoconferencing and online coursework. As of 2019, 61 percent of Hispanic Americans and 66 percent of Black Americans used broadband to access the Internet, as compared to 79 percent of white Americans. Only 56 percent of Americans making under $30,000 per year had access to broadband Internet at home, as compared to 92 percent of Americans making over $75,000. Rural communities, which tend to have higher poverty rates than urban and suburban communities, are also less likely to have access to broadband Internet; only 63 percent of rural communities had access to broadband Internet, as compared to 75 percent of urban communities and 79 percent of suburban communities.
Taken together, the data paints a clear and rather sobering picture: remote instruction is leaving some of America’s most vulnerable students even further behind than before.
Congress has taken action in recent years to address the broadband access disparity with the Digital Equity Act, introduced in the Senate in 2019 but not yet passed, which would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to establish grant programs promoting digital equity and inclusion, and building capacity for state governments to increase adoption of broadband by their residents. President-elect Joe Biden also pledged throughout the 2020 presidential campaign to expand access to broadband Internet through infrastructure plans and subsidies to low-income Americans who cannot afford broadband. With seeming bipartisan agreement, a rarity in today’s polarized Congress, the United States may be on track to begin closing the digital divide. How that affects the education gap is yet to be seen, but there is good reason to believe closing the digital divide will help narrow the education gap as well.
Pandemics are fairly rare, but they are near impossible to predict, either in frequency or severity. The world was caught off-guard by COVID-19, but the lessons learned, including the lessons on remote instruction, can and should endure. Further, remote instruction is now another metaphorical “tool in the belt” for school districts; many districts are now considering eliminating snow days and replacing them with remote instruction. The sooner there is action on bridging the digital divide, the better the chances that students have to maintain their learning goals.