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Challenges affecting low-income communities’ ability to deliver and sustain virtual education during the COVID-19 crisis

May 29, 2020

In America, we have long accepted that the engagement of children between ages five and eighteen in formal education for about 180 days per year provides sufficient preparation for the workforce and higher education. This policy position assumes that children’s experiences outside of school, during weekends, holidays, and school vacations, provide valuable informal learning that compliments formal educational experiences provided by schools; allowing each student to build a foundation of theoretical learning, essential skills, emotional security, and cultural grounding necessary for a well-rounded student, worker and citizen. As faulty as this general assumption may be, the impact of schools closing their doors for a third of a calendar year due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be devastating for students’ potential to meet the schooling objectives mentioned above.

Connecticut schools are working hard to provide distance learning opportunities that can continue their students’ formal education. Some schools are providing instructional materials in print while others are distributing materials electronically through email, school websites, or online learning platforms. Educational activities may be live (for example, virtual class meetings) or made available for asynchronous learning (for example, recorded instruction or self-directed experiences). In either case, participation in distance learning depends on students’ level of motivation and their ability to interpret the work assigned. In the case of younger children, successful engagement also depends on active support from parents, who necessarily must help younger students, particularly non-readers, to access and interpret learning materials. Learning experiences that are distributed electronically or activities that must be completed online (whether synchronous or asynchronous) rely on families’ access to appropriate devices and reliable internet connections.

The impact of COVID-19 on schools has again laid bare educational inequity among communities and the nation’s assumptions around local communities’ ability to sustain equitable, high quality education. Many communities struggle to provide the best, most competitive education for students they can—often adopting ‘adequate’ as their base standard and ‘high quality’ as an ambiguous ideal to towards which they aspire. During non-COVID times, communities and school districts serving low-income urban and rural students have not met national and state educational objectives proportionate to their more affluent peer communities—restricting students’ future opportunities and life prospects. These vulnerable communities are not making a choice to provide lesser educational opportunities to their students; they simply do not have the resources to provide the educational opportunities that their students would receive in a more affluent community. Under-resourced schools face systemic and ongoing challenges related to the availability of educational technology, including access to an adequate number of devices, online learning resources, adequate training and professional development for teachers, and financial resources to maintain technology systems and equipment. Individual communities do not have the ability to level the playing field among districts, rather equity is the responsibility of the state. The expectation that during the COVID-19 pandemic, fiscally challenged communities will, without years of prior planning and significant investment, adopt a new method of virtually delivering high-quality educational services to a community of high-need students and services sufficient to sustain and advance student growth during an abbreviated school year, is unrealistic.

Of consequence is the reality that schools serving mostly high-need students generally have not achieved effective school and family collaboration for the purpose of supporting student instruction and growth. Policies in schools serving mostly high-need students generally attest to the school going-it-alone, evidencing minimal support and education for adults and families geared towards incorporating home as a highly valued partner in extending the student’s educational opportunities beyond the school day. In addition, schools generally have not been successful in advocating through policy and fiscal support about the need for adequate access to technology at home to support learning beyond the school day. As a result, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many low-income students find that the technology available in their homes (smartphones and wireless data networks) is not adequate for the distance learning opportunities offered by school districts for teaching and learning during school closures. Other conditions that may affect students’ success with distance learning include: the need to allocate time and resources among tech users in the household; student access to a physical space within the household where the student can complete schoolwork; learner time, attendance, participation, attention span, and technology skills; learner comprehension of instructional activities; and, the ability of parent/adult family members to support virtual home-based learning both emotionally and academically. While these challenges may impact the effectiveness of distance learning for many children, the magnitude of these challenges may distinguish high-need communities from sufficiently resourced communities with strong mutual school family expectations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the event in our lifetime that has the greatest potential to significantly change educational systems. Many Americans believe that the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic along with the strong potential for other catastrophes to occur, will test our educational system and its potential to deliver on its promises for all students. Stronger investment in promoting educational equity, including increased access to technology in and out of school as an essential educational resource and increased support for developing families’ expectation and capacity to collaborate with schools in a virtual environment, must be essential aspects of our plan for a new future. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought previously existing educational inequity to the forefront in a new way. Taking this opportunity to improve educational systems for the benefit of all children is a critical step in building a stronger nation.

George A. Coleman currently serves as Practitioner Lead for PEER, Early Childhood Program Development Specialist at Cooperative Educational Services (C.E.S., the Regional Educational Service Center for southwestern Connecticut), and adjunct professor at Western Connecticut State University. Prior to his current roles, Coleman served the Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) for 24 years in roles including Acting Commissioner of Education, Deputy Commissioner of Education, Associate Commissioner of Education, Chief of the Bureau of Curriculum and Teaching, and Chief of the Bureau of Early Childhood Education. Coleman’s long and distinguished career in Connecticut gives him a unique perspective on the current crisis.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on May 29, 2020