Emergencies that disrupt the regular functioning of schools and colleges don’t occur in a power vacuum. They play out in education systems with deeply embedded patterns of inequality, determined by where students live, by family income, by race and by ethnicity, among other factors.
As school districts and colleges across the country move classes into online formats amid the coronavirus, the general principle behind the decision is to offer continuity of instruction without exposing students to potential risks associated with the pandemic. Emergency situations require emergency measures. Safety comes first.
Historically disadvantaged students, though, will have unequal access to the internet and to the hardware needed to fully participate in online courses. Campus closures, or restricted access, mean immediate threats to housing and food security for both college and school-aged students.
Historically disadvantaged students will face greater academic risks in emergency online environments.
Colleges and school systems are hustling under stressful conditions to develop appropriate policies for emergency online learning. These emergency policies need to be developed in direct relationship to the enduring problem in education: inequality.
1. Access to content. Now, as always, what assumptions are being made about how students from low socioeconomic backgrounds will access virtual content? Economic disparities across education systems mean some students have access to laptops, to regular internet access, to printers. Low-income students can’t count on these things; a laptop may be shared among family members and/or students may rely on mobile devices that are not compatible with learning-management platforms. Students without home internet access will likely need to go to public spaces, such as libraries and restaurants, to keep up with their coursework.
Their needs come into conflict with directives to practice social distancing. School districts and universities need to allocate funds so that historically disadvantaged students have immediate as well as long-term and unrestricted access to the hardware and internet access that more affluent students already possess.
Educators need to organize instruction and feedback in ways that make it easy for students with restricted internet or hardware access to participate in class, receive feedback and submit assignments — and to do so in ways that don’t require them to spend long periods in high-risk public spaces like libraries.
2. Housing and food insecurity. College students on financial aid have enrollment and class unit requirements as conditions of their aid. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds live off the stipends from financial aid as their primary source of income. In many situations, their families also rely on such financial aid.
Students who are living in their cars or in shelters or who otherwise don’t have homes to return to have to figure out ways around campus restrictions such as limited library hours. Apart from very immediate hardship for students, housing and food insecurity directly affects students’ opportunities to learn online. Financial-aid stipends that might have been spent on phone or internet bills will be prioritized for more essentials, such as housing. Public school students who are poor depend on schools for regular meals, for health/counseling services, for safe spaces.
School and college administrators need to dig into relatively deep pockets to reallocate funds to address housing, food and other insecurities that school and campus closures create. They need to redirect funds as a basic moral obligation, yes, but also as an essential condition for equal opportunities to learn.
3. Unequal risks. Research on online learning in both K-12 and higher-education settings points consistently to uneven benefits of online learning by student subgroups.
Students from historically disadvantaged groups have, in general, low retention rates in online programs relative to their economically advantaged peers. We know that online curriculum companies have struggled, and at times ignored, the needs of students with learning differences, students with special needs and students for whom English isn’t a native language.
This is not a time for finger-pointing, but neither is it a time for simplistic solutions. There is a strong possibility that colleges and public schools will “lose” historically disadvantaged students in the temporary transfer to online learning.
It’s critical that there be recognition of and attention to the unequal experiences of historically disadvantaged students in online programs, including the unequal quality of online instruction that historically disadvantaged students receive. If ignored, there is a risk of further compounding class and racial achievement gaps.
4. Multiple roles. Undergraduate and graduate students have overlapping and conflicting roles that further complicate participation in emergency online courses. They aren’t only students. They are also often working professionals. In the education, social-service and health professions, they are front-line caregivers in a global pandemic. Every day, they are dealing with children and families who already are at risk, and living in communities without the capacity and resources (hospitals, clinics) to deal with the crisis.
How will these individuals manage the pressure of being online students while also taking care of expected demands in resource-strapped communities? Many of these student-teachers and trainees will be worried about what will happen to their students if schools and clinics close. Where will their students get daily meals once a school has closed? Where will they go if they or family members get sick?
Providing public school educators with in-class opportunities to discuss the compounded crises of the pandemic for low-income students is critical. Doing so will create forums within and across communities to mobilize for action as needs arise. These in-class discussions are particularly important as face-to-face forums for deliberative action are canceled.
In a time of crisis, it’s the norm to think in general terms about the interests of society and students. This can lead to online policy remedies that ignore historically embedded patterns of unequal treatment.
School and college administrators need to develop policies and practice for online learning that deal with the immediate health emergency in the context of enduring problems: unequal educational opportunities and unequal treatment.
This story about online education and inequality was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Patricia Burch is a professor at the University of Southern California and a co-director of the USC Rossier Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance.