Listen to this article here

For years online learning was the wayward cousin of education reform, but COVID-19 has forced a new conversation about its potential. School districts have shifted their lessons to ed-tech products, families are logging on, and we’re on our way to a national experiment on an unprecedented scale. Will students enjoy their newfound flexibility and freedom? Will they miss the social interactions of public schools? Will parents be overwhelmed?

Today Chris Stewart chats with Tillie Elvrum, President of the National Coalition for Public School Options.

The tide has gone out, and the water has exited the bay. Now exposed, the seabed displaying coral reefs and distressed marine life that struggle to breathe; this unnatural phenomenon is nature’s ultimate siren alerting humankind that a massive, mysterious tide is billowing at sea and will soon strike the land with an unforeseeable force. It will drastically challenge and inevitably transform human institutions into some unrecognizable form.   

While China’s, South Korea’s and Italy’s alarms sounded that a tsunami-like novel virus would soon break at their shores and shutter schools across their culturally rich nations, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos remained silent for weeks as the coronavirus swelled off the American coast in the distance. Eventually, the wave smashed violently and mercilessly against America’s pacific northwestern region in late February. 

An outbreak of the novel disease claimed lives in a nursing facility just north of Seattle, Washington; that state, the first to shutter schools in a now rattled nation. The virus, known scientifically as COVID-19, arrived on American lands, shining a bright beam on its numerous inequalities, including those in public education. 

Secretary DeVos publicly addressed the nation for the first time since the outbreak claimed the life of a 36-year-old Brooklyn principal, Dez-Ann Romain, and only after the closure of America’s largest school district — the New York City Department of Education, setting into motion a domino effect for other school closures around the country.

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 1.12.26 PM

At the White House, DeVos announced to the nation, “We must rise to the challenge of educating all children from all walks of life, who all of a sudden are in many many different learning environments.” Notwithstanding that, before the viral waves began crashing and disrupting public education, America had never genuinely risen to the challenge of educating all of its children. It instead gave apathy towards the disparities between black and white, suburban and urban, and rich and poor learning environments. The Madam Secretary continued: “The transition to distance-and-learning needs to happen quickly. And it needs to include meaningful instruction and supports for children with disabilities.” 

DeVos, however, neglected to mention that students from affluent, well-funded schools will have more resources to allow for a quicker transition to her distance-and-learning requirements. Frankly and in contrast, most school districts will inevitably fail to meet the Secretary’s unrealistic demands in a timely fashion due to decades of educational inequalities that are now visibly heightened due to the growing pandemic. 

Such differences as providing each student a Chromebook in an affluent suburban district, while students in urban communities receive worksheets via snail mail, is wrong. This inequitable difference further exacerbates the level of inequality that already exists in American schools. 

Moreover, students from wealthy school districts will enjoy the luxury of using zoom for some of their classes. Their teachers will be able to better manage their learning. The opposite is true for the working-class. 

Luxury has never been conceivable for students from economically challenged school districts. Those students won’t have a pedagogical face to go with their lessons nor the option of searching for YouTube tutorials to assist them, because put simply: They don’t have the same thing as the students from wealthier districts; they don’t have Chromebooks. 

And while the use of mobile hotspots is the right step toward more equity in education, it won’t suffice if families don’t have computers. 

Digital Divide: The Technology Gap between the Rich and Poor,” reveals the technological equity gap between the haves and have nots: 

  • According to the 2012 Pew Report “Digital Differences,” only 62% of people in households making less than $30,000 a year used the internet, while in those making $50,000-74,999 that percentage jumped to 90. 
  • Only 49% of African Americans and 51% of Hispanics have high-speed internet at home, as compared with 66% of Caucasians. Internet speed has important effects on media access, especially when it comes to streaming video, so this gap is significant.
  • In a Pew survey of teachers, teachers of low-income students tended to report more obstacles to using educational technology effectively than their peers in more affluent schools.
  • Among teachers in the highest income areas, 70% said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching. Among teachers in the lowest income areas, that number was just 50%.
  • Fifty-six percent of teachers in low-income schools say that their students’ inadequate access to technology is a “major challenge” for using technology as a teaching aid.
  • Fifty-four percent of all teachers said their students had adequate internet access at school, but only 18% said their students had adequate access at home. Interestingly, urban teachers are more likely to say students have poor access to the internet at school, while rural teachers are more likely to report that students have poor access at home. 

Hence, the COVID-19 wave antagonistically breaks hardest on the backs of the vulnerable. Students from challenged communities, many who are black and brown, and all students with disabilities will feel its adverse effects the most. 

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 1.09.52 PM.png

There is no equitable plan in place that ensures marginalized American students don’t drown in the vast storm surge that rapidly approaches the nation and will widen the gap of inequality in American public schools. 

Although DeVos announced what some states are doing to combat the technological equity gap between populated and rural communities, there is no nationwide mandate to require school districts to provide computers and internet access for students’ distance learning. 

We need an educational advocate in the next presidential administration that will advocate for high-quality education and equitable funding from congress before the next tsunami hits, so when the surge rises and strikes again, we’ll be better prepared as a nation.

Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times and a descendant of two families that survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Although his publication’s store and newsroom...