IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Virtual Learning Means Unequal Learning

The achievement gap is going to get worse.

virtual learning_shutterstock_41579209
Shutterstock/Anatoly Vartanov
Karen Reyes, who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Austin, Texas, worries about her first-grade pupils who will be learning online this fall. She’s concerned that virtual learning is harder for younger, special needs children, especially those who may not have as much support at home as students in more affluent communities.

“It has brought out a lot of the inequities in our district, especially in special education,” Reyes said of the distance learning program.

In her school, 93% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to a city estimate.

“Either one or both of the parents have to work,” said Reyes, 31, who also is a leader in the local American Federation of Teachers chapter, in a phone interview. “That makes it even harder because small children need adults with them when they are learning.”

By contrast, in affluent Howard County, Maryland, in the outer Washington, D.C., suburbs, which is also going to virtual classes in the fall, many parents are scrambling to line up tutors to help their kids. Families also are banding together to form “pods” of children, with tutors whose rates can range from $70 an hour for tutoring one child to $29 an hour each for a pod of four.

Delaney Fox, who runs a small, independent tutoring and babysitting service in Howard County, said her phone is ringing constantly with potential clients.

“The demand?” she said. “It’s mass hysteria. We were getting calls during the Board of Ed meeting [when the remote learning policy was being set]. People wanted to be first on the list when it seemed like the board was voting that way. I’m trying to help as many people as I can.”

The contrasting examples illustrate what many educators and experts fear — that inequities in local school systems because of a lack of funding, technology or parental involvement will be exacerbated by schools’ remote learning and hybrid plans in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

School districts that can afford it are trying to help. Some are giving or loaning laptops to students who don’t have them. Others are giving out Wi-Fi hotspots so that children can get online. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy came up with a plan to address unmet technological needs in his state’s schools, including asking corporations to help supply laptops and dedicating $10 million in state funds to technological upgrades for students.

Elsewhere, some teachers are calling students individually to help with assignments, or even dropping off textbooks and paper homework. But in a lot of places, it’s hit or miss.

The inequity is even more stark between public and private schools. Many smaller private schools with large campuses or big buildings have the ability and resources to spread students out in classrooms. Many regions report a run on private school applications. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, sparked an uproar and a lawsuit when he tried to dedicate a portion of the federal stimulus money allocated to states to private school vouchers.

National Association of Independent Schools spokeswoman Myra McGovern said the lack of a centralized national authority setting policy for all schools, public and private, is a blessing and a curse.

“Having a national standard or guidelines could make things a lot less confusing,” she said in a phone interview.

Absent that, private schools have been relying on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, often leaving the decision up to private school principals, who, she noted, “didn’t go to medical school.”

While many public school districts were hoping to hold in-person classes, the surging virus has forced them to scale back their plans or go to all-virtual education, at least to start the fall semester.

John Rury, professor emeritus at the University of Kansas and author of a study on racial and socio-economic disparities in Kansas City’s educational achievement, said the biggest concern of going to distance learning is “that the achievement gap is going to get worse. The gap is going to widen.”

And Rury said it’s not just the issue of slow or no internet connections in some areas. That can be addressed by distributing hotspots or allowing students to connect in a school parking lot, he said. But children, especially younger ones, need parental or other supervision for distance learning to really work. “It really comes down to the role of the parents,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s critical.”

Rury said other studies have shown that college-educated parents already make a huge difference in their children’s curiosity and interaction with the world. With distance learning, he said, that gap intensifies.

“The working-class kids are much more school-dependent to get the skills for a knowledge-based economy,” he said. “Take away that interactive [in-person] schooling, that puts them at a disadvantage compared to the kids of the college educated, who can more likely work at home. [In-person] school mitigates class differences.”

A study published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University projects that students returning to school this fall are likely to come in with about 63-68% of the gains they would have been expected to achieve in reading this past spring, and only 37-50% of the usual gains in math. But, the study said, the gains will not be universal, with the top third of students making larger gains in reading than the rest.

“In preparing for fall 2020, educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction,” the study said.

Megan Kuhfeld, one of the study’s authors and a senior research scientist at NWEA, a nonprofit testing and educational research company, noted that higher-income parents “are using whatever resources they can during this period to try to make up for remote learning,” while lower-income parents may not be able to, resulting in more learning loss.

“We don’t think the losses will be universal,” she said.

For school systems trying to decide whether to reopen, there’s conflicting advice. The American Academy of Pediatrics called for schools to be open with social distancing measures in place. President Donald Trump and White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx also called for schools to be open, as have some governors. But other governors are being more cautious, and some are leaving the decisions to local counties and school boards.

In New York, for example, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has laid out criteria for schools to meet to hold in-person classes, including that the local average infection rate is below 5% over a two-week period by Aug. 1.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed 60% of parents with children in school said it was better to hold off on opening schools until later in the year to minimize infection risk, even if children miss out on academics and social services and some parents can’t work.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, ordered students to return to the classroom, but the state’s teachers union filed suit over the issue, saying schools shouldn’t fully open yet to protect the health of both educators and students.

Rural school districts might find reopening even harder because of a lack of internet access.

Saranac Central, New York, school district teacher Michele Bushey said that in the spring, both teachers and students searched for internet access in the mountainous Adirondack region. Some of the teachers and students went to library parking lots to connect, she said, and some teachers brought their own children with them, turning their cars into mini-schools.

The inequalities were obvious, said Bushey, who is also president of the Saranac Teachers Association and a political action coordinator for the New York State United Teachers. “Some families might have one laptop for three children all day long,” she said. “There is an absolute inequity between those who have and those who do not have. It’s poverty, and it’s geography, for us.”

Bushey’s district is considering a hybrid system for fall, with some students attending virtually and others in-person.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said in an interview that teachers are “fighting hard to have real plans because we know in-school learning is so important for kids. But we will leave nothing on the table — no strategy is off limits anymore to keep kids and educators safe.”

However, she said, at some point even the best in-school plans “can’t overcome the virus surge, lack of readiness and lack of resources” endemic to many school districts.

Anna Griesbach, a high school computer science teacher in Kansas City, Missouri, said she’s comfortable with the technology, but even that can’t overcome the problems associated with lower-income students trying to learn remotely. “A lot of our parents have multiple kids and they might be sharing one device,” she said, “so how do you schedule on one device?”

About a quarter of her district’s students were stymied by lousy internet connections in the spring, which worries her.

But, she said, “I’d rather have an imperfect solution and keep the kids safe than have a perfect solution and have the kids die. I’d hate to have to sub in a class where a teacher died.”

Elaine S. Povich is an award-winning reporter who covers tax and budget issues for Stateline. Povich has reported from Washington for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and UPI. She also covered taxes and government finances as a freelancer for The Fiscal Times, Governing, AOLGovernment, Kiplinger and AARP Bulletin. She has written three books and is an adjunct professor of journalism at Maryland.