Digital divide, economic disparities magnified by COVID-19

In high school, I didn’t ask questions in class. 

What if they laughed at me?  What if I looked stupid? 

These feelings of inadequacy often caused me to miss valuable information during instruction. Other times, I didn’t know what to ask and it was easier to pretend that I understood.

I was an outlier in school.  A black student receiving free lunch surrounded by white kids with parents who had advanced degrees, secure jobs and the kind of money that brings real freedom.  I didn’t just realize at that age that there is a divide in society between those who have and those who have not; I lived it.

My parents couldn’t afford computers or Internet access. Instead, we had an outdated set of encyclopedias published more than 20 years earlier.  I worked on a project once about Germany and used the term “East Berlin” because my encyclopedia wasn’t updated to note that the wall had fallen. 

I felt a certain amount of embarrassment and shame when my teacher corrected me in front of the class, wondering where I found this information.

Inequities prevent underrepresented students from exceling. Too often, these inequities have been an undiscussed virus plaguing our society.  My embarrassment and shame from yesterday propel me to speak for similar students today.

These disparities continue to exist not only within a socioeconomic context, but also along racial lines.  The privileged establishment finds inner courage to address these disparities, but too often in times of crisis.  Society is in its most reflective state during and immediately after natural disasters, tragic loss of life and acts of terrorism.

Across the nation, we see the compassion of those who would not ordinarily acknowledge that there is a socioeconomic divide. Some have volunteered their salaries, spoken in support of expanded healthcare options, working to provide free lunch to all families or access to technology for all students.

Why does it take crises to acknowledge social ills and economic disparity?

Why does it take a global pandemic to realize what’s necessary for a family’s long-term success?

Why wait until an emergency to finally acknowledge that not every child lives in an environment conducive to learning?

Is it because, thanks to COVID-19, we can no longer ignore it?

As a response to this new rapidly spreading virus, governors across the nation have shut down district schools and mandated the birth of a new, widespread form of education – distance learning.  They assure their constituents that this is a necessary step and will provide all students with an opportunity to continue their education while staying safe at home. 

All students? 

Are we to believe that in the absence of options, all students are learning? 

During my local district’s most recent virtual meeting, I took over the microphone for a few minutes:

“How will you ensure all families have access to computers and technology?”

“How will you address unstable learning environments?”

“How will all students learn if there are varied levels of support at home?”

“How will this affect the ever-present achievement gap?”

I finally found the courage as an adult to do what I couldn’t do as a student – what so many lower-income families still can’t do. I asked questions. 

But that doesn’t mean I got answers.

District officials told me they had a crisis plan in place and are ironing out the details.

The reality of the situation is that there is a digital divide with distance learning.  A divide that’s detrimental to the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of students in lower-income situations. 

This is not the fault of COVID-19. 

This new virus has merely exposed the older one – decades of economic warfare, systemic racism, classicism and inequity of resource availability.

According to Pew Research Center, fewer than half of households making between $20-40,000 have internet access. This is in comparison to 93 percent of households making at least $100,000 annually. 

Lower-income households also report family members with higher risk health issues, multiple children, parents without college degrees and at least one child in the home diagnosed with special needs. 

These families need more than equipment; they need support from local municipalities that tackle all risk factors if we want any one of the solutions to work properly and provide help that’s desperately needed.

Why did it take a pandemic to realize this was necessary?

3 Comments

  1. Well said Mr. Jacobs!

  2. Great article. We have to spread this wonderful word. Please continue to fight for education

  3. Equity and opportunity gaps must always remain in the forefront of our decision making as educators. Thank you for reminding us!