The digital divide, COVID-19 and our failing education system

With K-12 schools moving online, the digital divide will only reinforce educational disparities, placing students from low-income communities at a disadvantage.


As an education major, one of the most important skills I’ve learned is adaptation — adapting curricula to meet cultural diversity within my classroom, adapting instruction to meet the individualized needs of students and adapting lesson plans midway if they’re not working.

Yet, I was never taught how to adapt to a pandemic. And from the frantic, ill-prepared move to online classes across the country, I’m not sure if our education system knew how to either. 

On March 13, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools across the state of Pennsylvania to close for two weeks to limit the spread of COVID-19, becoming the eighth state to do so, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Yesterday, Wolf announced that all Pennsylvania schools will be closed indefinitely until further notice, WHYY reported.

The School District of Philadelphia, like other districts across the nation, is scrambling to provide students with computers and internet access in a matter of weeks when we should’ve asked years ago why less than half of Philadelphia students lack access to these resources in the first place.

More than 21 million people across the nation lack access to broadband internet, with income being one of the greatest factors, and school-aged children are the most affected by this disparity, according to the Brookings Institute. But it takes a pandemic for us to start this dialogue, when we should’ve been discussing the digital divide years ago.

The district announced that it would not offer remote instruction during this time, stating it would be unfair to students without regular access to a computer or high-speed internet, Time reported. On March 18, the district clarified that teachers could offer optional, online lessons for some students as long as students who could not participate would not be penalized or punished, the Inquirer reported.

Learning guides for all K-12 grades are available to be picked up or downloaded from the district’s website, with the goal of slowing down any regression that may take place while students are out of school, said Monica Lewis, deputy chief of communications and spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia.

The district is acknowledging how socioeconomic inequality can affect educational outcomes, especially considering that the vast majority of students within the School District of Philadelphia come from low-income backgrounds, Time reported. 

But the current pandemic is highlighting the socioeconomic disparities prevalent within Philadelphia by demonstrating how income inequality leads to unequal access to technological resources, which ultimately can affect educational outcomes.

“In Philly in particular, the digital divide, the issues around trauma and poverty and everything that we know becomes magnified when you have a situation like this and you’re trying to get all kids access to learning,” said Laura Shubilla, a Temple University policy, organizational and leadership studies instructor and co-founder of Building 21, a competency-based public school in North Philadelphia.

The digital divide refers to unequal access to computers and the internet due to socioeconomic and geographic barriers, according to the Wharton Public Policy Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. The digital divide reinforces social stratification and limits access to educational opportunities for those without access to computer and informational technology.

Students who use computers and have internet access at home generally perform better academically than their peers without access to this resource, on top of other socioeconomic factors affecting school performance, like poverty and parents’ educational background, according to a 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Less than half of students in the School District of Philadelphia have access to a computer and high-speed internet, PhillyVoice reported

Basic socioeconomic inequalities that existed before the COVID-19 outbreak have been exacerbated by this current pandemic, said Will Jordan, an associate professor of policy, organizational and leadership studies.

“I think the fact they were under-resourced already and there was rampant inequality in the school district already, now not being able to be in school poses another significant problem,” Jordan said.

The district is distributing up to 50,000 Chromebooks to students without computer access and is talking to Comcast about seeking free internet access for families in need, the Inquirer reported. 

But even if the district could provide every student with a laptop and free broadband internet, it could take weeks for that to happen. Chromebooks won’t be distributed to students until mid-April, roughly a month after Wolf’s closure of K-12 schools across the state, according to the district’s Office of Communications and External Relations website.

In the meantime, students with access to these resources could be learning weeks worth of content that their peers without access would be missing out on.

While offering optional online instruction to only some students isn’t equitable, strictly using packets and worksheets isn’t ideal either. Instruction like that is incredibly uniform, meaning that English-language-learners and students with disabilities won’t receive the individualized education that they need, the Inquirer reported.

There is no clear solution when adapting to the COVID-19 outbreak because our educational system is ill-prepared to deal with the socioeconomic ramifications switching to remote learning. 

And although we’re last-minute searching for ways to provide effective instruction that all students can access today, we need to use the COVID-19 outbreak as a lesson for the future to establish an education system that works for all students.

We need to ensure that all students have access to computers and high-speed internet, both at school and home. Funding for educational technology primarily goes to school buildings, leaving students with limited access at home and in their communities when trying to do homework, according to a report by the Brookings Institute published earlier this month.

That means that even when students return to school, more than half of students will still be at a disadvantage by not having the resources to complete homework and do research.

“Going into the future, we have to come up with ways to get every single kid, no matter how poor they are, no matter what district they live in, basic access to the internet,” Jordan said. “I think the way to get there, though, is money.”

Second, we need more well-developed, predetermined plans for transitioning to remote instruction that keeps all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, learning continuously and effectively. It’s apparent that the district’s current approach of halting instruction altogether — and then changing that decision only days later — was ill-prepared, hasty and ineffective.

Those plans should also be updated regularly to match changes in technology and shifts in school demographics.

Finally, our school funding system needs to change, and the COVID-19 outbreak proves why that’s the case. Pennsylvania uses a property tax structure to fund schools, meaning the wealthiest districts with the highest property values generate the greatest funding for schools, the Morning Call reported. As a result, poorer districts are at a disadvantage.

Disparities in funding are rising between the richest and poorest school districts in Pennsylvania — the School District of Philadelphia spent $9,062 per student in the 2016-17 school year, compared to $15,748 per student in the average wealthy district, the Inquirer reported in 2018. 

With a school funding system based on need and an emphasis on equitable access to core resources, school districts like Philadelphia could have the funds they require to provide each student with the technology they need, according to the Center for American Progress.

To be clear, I can’t begin to understand the tough decisions that the district has been tasked with thus far. The impact of COVID-19 on education is unprecedented, and the district seems to be trying its hardest to provide students with the resources they need.

But we could’ve avoided this panic if we already ensured every student had access to the technology they needed to succeed in school.

“I wonder what it would be like if we made this an educational priority not just in a time of crisis,” Shubilla said. “What a crisis does is it highlights and magnifies some of these inequities and where there’s real challenges, and people who are really vulnerable become even more vulnerable, and people tend to see that more in a crisis.”

This pandemic proves that we can change our education system for the better.

“As we’re pushing through this crisis, we’re starting to see a possibility where every family has access to a computer and has access to connect with teachers virtually,” Shubilla added.

Recent estimates predict that COVID-19 could continue to spread globally for months to come, Time reported. While school districts like ours are using this time to adapt to the pandemic and its effect on education, we must learn how to do better in the future.

We need to think critically about the educational system we have in place and its failing students from low-income families. We need to evaluate the institutions in place that cause such significant socioeconomic disparities in the first place, and how Pennsylvania’s school funding system exacerbates this issue.

And most importantly, we need to learn how to teach our students effectively in times of crisis.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.