Online schooling is highlighting the inequality in our classrooms

As in-home learning has replaced the schoolhouse, those with the fewest resources are falling through the cracks

Published April 27, 2020 4:59AM (EDT)

In this Jan. 19, 2017 photo 28-year-old Talal Mando, left, a refugee from Homs, works with writer Mohanad Al-Naheel on his website in Berlin, Germany. The website with information and news for recently arrived migrants to Germany has hit one million visitors.(AP Photo/Jona Kallgren) (AP)
In this Jan. 19, 2017 photo 28-year-old Talal Mando, left, a refugee from Homs, works with writer Mohanad Al-Naheel on his website in Berlin, Germany. The website with information and news for recently arrived migrants to Germany has hit one million visitors.(AP Photo/Jona Kallgren) (AP)

This article originally appeared on Truthout.

Noelle Salaun, an urban high school senior, is frustrated. Although she has already been accepted into a prestigious college for fall 2020, the transition from in-school classes to at-home learning has left her perplexed and angry.

"I'm drowning in stress and anxiety," Salaun told Truthout. "I feel as though I'm not learning. Before the virus, a normal school day was 8:30 am to 2:30 pm. Now, with online learning, every day of the week starts and ends differently. It's a mess."

Furthermore, Salaun says that remote video-conferencing is "an inadequate replacement for classroom instruction." Her specific complaints — shared, she says, by many of her peers — is that she frequently has trouble logging in, hearing what is being said and responding. Worse, she says, more class time is spent taking attendance, asking students to appear on camera and reminding them to keep up with homework than on explaining the subject matter.

"We're actually being given more work now than we were before the virus, with the excuse that we supposedly have nothing else to do," Salaun says. In addition, she adds, every assignment is due at a specific time, a requirement that leaves her feeling drained and insecure about the material she is expected to master.

Still, Salaun knows that she is lucky: She has a functioning computer, a secure internet connection, enough food to eat and a roof over her head.

Luz Dolores, a 16-year-old junior at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering, and Architecture in Ozone Park, New York, also considers herself lucky. Although she says that she hates being home 24/7, she has largely been able to stay on top of her work thanks to a teacher who gave her a computer after learning that she did not have one.

Lack of technology causes difficulties in keeping up

The recent switch to online learning was not Dolores's first experience with working from home.

Prior to her school's mid-March shutdown, Dolores says that faculty had already moved to a mix of digital and classroom instruction, a shift that disadvantaged her. "I have an outdated phone, an old phone that does not let me access certain files," she said. "Even before we went into crisis mode, I had an assignment that was uploaded to a site called PupilPath. I did not know about this assignment because I couldn't see it on my phone." Dolores says after she learned of the task from classmates, she explained what had happened to the teacher. "Instead of giving me an extension, she told me I had to get a phone upgrade. Where did she expect me to get the money to do this?" Dolores asks, her exasperation audible.

Today, Dolores is thankful that she has a laptop and can access the course information that she needs. Nonetheless, she says that the transition has been rocky. "It's overwhelming," she says. "Not everything works the way it is supposed to. There is a site called Edpuzzle, where teachers upload videos and assignments, but digital things are not perfect. Over the last few days, the application has given me an error message. I sent a screen shot of this to my teacher but was told I'd received no credit because of the missed work."

Situations like this require flexibility, Dolores continues. "When teachers pile on ridiculous amounts of work, they can't expect us to retain the information, do the homework, and fully understand what we're supposed to be learning on our own."

There have been mornings, she says, when she has woken up to 30 classroom updates and memos, with four or five assignments due by day's end. "No one tells us how we're supposed to do this. We're just expected to have time management skills and be able to think, read and write as if we have no other obligations."

But many students do have other obligations: From caring for siblings and elders, to overseeing the homework completion of younger brothers and sisters, to picking up food from a school meals program or soup kitchen, to holding down a job or searching for one. Some students are also dealing with illness, whether their own or someone else's, or may be mourning a lost loved one. Still others have had to deal with inclement weather — including tornadoes, floods, wind storms and blizzards — in addition to COVID-19.

Then there's the issue of technology. According to Time Magazine approximately 15 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children do not have high-speed internet. Microsoft estimates that the number is even higher — by their account, 163 million people live without access to a fast, reliable connection. And even in districts where schools have scrambled to acquire computers, tablets and hotspots for students, many live too far from a cellular wireless signal for this to make much difference.

These realities highlight a long-ignored but blatant fact: The biggest obstacle to online learning is not a lack of technological gear, but the persistence of class privilege and class bias. And needless to say, homeschooling can't happen for those without a home — or, at the very least, a place where they can sit, focus and learn.

Predictably, children who live in spacious quarters, with a quiet nook in which to study, as well as an adult caretaker with the time, language skills and ability to oversee and supplement their homework, make sure nutritious meals are available, and purchase books, art materials and other supplies, can thrive in a homeschooling environment.

Privileging the already privileged

Samantha Barrow, a poet and humanities teacher, left her apartment in New York City in mid-March for Martha's Vineyard where she and her wife have a tiny house. "We are people with resources. We have more flexibility than most, and while we don't always have everything we want, we have a lot more than a lot of people."

Barrow and her wife have two kids and family in Martha's Vineyard to help rear them. "I can also open our back door so my kids can go outside, something that's impossible in a Manhattan apartment building," Barrow tells Truthout.

Still, she says that it's difficult to both work and oversee her children's learning. Scheduling is grueling: Barrow's wife — a chef who is now preparing meals for pick-up and delivery — goes to work from 4:00 to 6:00 am, comes home and helps get the kids set for the day, and returns to work from 8:00am until noon. Barrow then works from 1:00 – 5:00 pm.

"My kids go to a bilingual school called Dos Puentes," Barrow says. "The teachers have been inventive, creative and incredibly patient, but out of 25 kids in my son's first-grade class, only 16 or 17 show up to the online classroom on a regular basis. The teachers are trying to give the kids options, including several different ways for them to hook into lessons, but there are glitches and things are sometimes sloppy."

Everyone at the school has good values, Barrow continues. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that learning online does not serve every child or every family. "Online lessons end up serving the people who have the most resources," she says. "I worry that next year, some kids who were passed into second grade will actually be ready for third grade while others will have slid back to the kindergarten level."

As Barrow notes, absenteeism is another huge concern.

NPR reported in early April that 47 percent of public school and 18 percent of private school students had not connected to any online learning platform in the first three weeks of the transition. Whether this is willful disregard or reflects school becoming a bottom-of-the-list priority remains unknown.

What we do know is that most teachers are struggling to adapt, and while students like Noelle Salaun and Luz Dolores's complaints have become commonplace, many teachers are struggling to find the right balance between academic rigor and recognition of the emotional upheaval students are experiencing.

Jill Neely teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) at Laney College, a public community college in Oakland, California. She told Truthout that in the first two-and-a-half weeks after the college's March 19 closure, she spent most of her time trying to track down her students. "About 20 percent are homeless and the majority are from Asia. Many live in very small spaces and a large percentage have children. I don't know how they are accomplishing anything," Neely said. "A lot don't have computers at home, and if they do have one, they likely share it with four other people. They typically have a crappy Wi-Fi connection so they do everything on their phones. As you know, writing a paper on a phone takes a thousand million hours."

Teachers face online teaching challenge 

Prior to the pandemic, Neely had never used Zoom and had to learn Canvas, the messaging platform used by public universities throughout California. "I'm working my butt off," she says. "I swear to God, some days I sit at the computer for six hours straight."

Neely is also a single parent, raising two kids: a 19-year-old first-year college student, now back at home, and a high school junior. "We each have a room with a good Wi-Fi connection. It's the privilege of the privileged," she says, "and it is still hard."

One of her biggest personal worries? Her daughter had planned to visit several colleges to see where she wanted to apply. These trips have been canceled. "There will also be no junior or senior prom, which is a big deal," she says.

Yet as concerned as Neely is about her own kids, she is most worried about her students and reports that she is regularly calling, emailing, texting and reaching out to them through Canvas. "My students need to know that someone cares about them," Neely says. In terms of coursework, she is keeping it simple, giving students lots of time to do assignments and being careful not to overwhelm them with multiple demands. She further stresses that she is being flexible and is making sure to "ask them how they're doing every day, to see what they need."

Shelley Ruby, another ESL teacher, works at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California; her experience mirrors Neely's. "Many of my students don't know how to use anything but their phones, so even though the college had Chromebooks they could borrow for free, they did not take them. I've been reaching out and trying, but it's hard to explain complex concepts when I'm not there in person," Ruby tells Truthout. "The main difficulties are a lack of language skills followed by a lack of technological savvy. In addition, at least half of my students have children and way more than half have jobs, often multiple jobs."

Like Neely, Ruby is juggling online teaching with the care of her two sons — and even with an involved co-parent and two involved grandparents, she says that this has been an adjustment. "My sixth grader's teachers have been serious from the start: students have to follow the regular school day schedule online. The purpose is to maintain structure and not have the class collapse into chaos, but my son has been given way too much work. He hates it. He finds it exhausting and I find it hard to support him when I'm also feeling exhausted."

After three weeks, the school dialed back some of the requirements, but since the school year runs until June 12, Ruby is taking a wait-and-see position on whether this work reduction is adequate. Her 8-year-old son, meanwhile, has heard almost nothing from his teachers, leaving him feeling bored and disengaged.

Amanda Adams-Louis is a teacher and student advisor at High School to Art School, a project of the Queens Council on the Arts in New York City. She teaches an array of students and says that the program anticipated the school shutdown and formulated a plan for a relatively seamless transition. Nonetheless, she says that she was shocked that some of her colleagues had no idea that so many of their students lacked in-home access to technology. But even more surprising, she says, was the student reaction. "Our students come from both public and elite private schools. The kids from the private schools have classes with a maximum of 15 students. When they heard students in public schools say that they can have 35, 36, 38 students in one class, they were stunned." The disparity, Adams-Louis says, raised their consciousness about class privilege, school inequities and the disparities between rich and poor. 

Will this newfound consciousness have long-term implications? No one knows.

In the meantime, students, teachers, parents and other caretakers are trying to stay in touch with one another, foster learning and do what they can to stay on top of assignments and grading.

But as Shawn Peck, assistant principal at Faribault High School in Minnesota, asked on Twitter: "Have you ever taken an online class? How about six at once? When you were a teenager? With spotty Wi-Fi? And needing to share a device with siblings? While trapped at home filled with fear and anxiety? Yeah. Me neither."

Nineteenth-century educator Horace Mann theorized that education would be the "great equalizer," leveling the playing field for rich and poor.

This obviously hasn't happened.

"If online instruction exacerbates already existing inequalities and makes them greater, it will be devastating for our public school population, pre-K through college," Emily Schnee, a professor at Kingsborough Community College-City University of New York, told Truthout. "Right now, the most disenfranchised students are getting hurt the most." The only way to even begin to make sure their needs are better met, she says, is for there to be true collaboration between students, faculty, teachers' unions and school administrators.

Since the school year is far from over, there's still a chance we can make things right.

Copyright © Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

By Eleanor J. Bader

MORE FROM Eleanor J. Bader

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