Remote learning highlights educational inequality, but that won’t inhibit its takeover

 On March 16, New York saw many of its city schools close. What began as a temporary shutdown for cleaning purposes turned out to be much more dire—students and faculty alike could have never predicted the tumult of COVID-19. 

It was clear that our school system had to undergo a rehaul, as in-person learning became too dangerous in light of the pandemic. Students struggled to adapt to remote learning as teachers struggled to keep up with the demands of preparing those students for exams and finishing coursework. Teachers who, for decades, had given lectures in a classroom with little to no technology now found themselves fumbling through Google Classroom and Zoom lectures. 

Students reported various obstacles encountered while adapting to remote learning, including lack of motivation, difficulty balancing courses with home responsibilities, lack of social interaction, internet connectivity issues and inability to adapt due to economic hardships. These issues do not affect all students equally. According to a poll from WCET Frontiers, an organization that promotes technology in education, internet access was one of the major problems encountered in remote learning. This finding shows that remote learning was hastily adopted with little regard for class disparities already present in society. Another poll by ParentsTogether found that “the lowest-income parents, making less than $25,000 a year, were 10 times more likely than families making six figures and above to say their kids are doing little or no remote learning (38 percent vs. 3.7 percent).” The laptops and phones that so many of us take for granted are luxuries for other students. While schools used to be able to (more or less) provide these resources equitably, remote learning has exacerbated the divide between the rich and the poor. How can we pride ourselves on our education system when it cannot, in collectively traumatic and unprecedented times, provide equal access to education?

“Kids from low-income homes are three times more likely not to have consistent access to a device.”
Courtesy of ParentsTogether via SurveyMonkey

Despite these hardships faced by students, it seems that faculty have shifted their mindset regarding remote learning. WCET Frontiers cited in its findings that “Many faculty came away with more positive sentiments about digital learning.” Thousands of school districts, including Poughkeepsie’s, have opted for a remote learning system this fall. Other districts have adopted a hybrid approach, in which some days are remote and some days are in-person. As the pandemic continues, some forms of virtual learning must be implemented. But online education has been instituted in a way that has not addressed the needs of low income students. Education inequality remains a major issue that needs to be tackled, not brushed aside by modern technology.

COVID may have accelerated the change, but, regardless, it’s not surprising that our education has shifted to an online platform. It seems like a natural progression, as education has had to constantly shift its practices to account for the society in which it takes root. I’m sure most of us remember those old nostalgic projectors that took over blackboards, and then SmartBoards that rendered the projectors obsolete, and so on. It’s clear that education must keep advancing in order to provide students with the best opportunities possible. 

But who decides what that “best” option is? Usually, this decision is made by upper-class officials who seek to cut funds where they can, and not for the sake of helping low income students. Right now, though, remote learning seems to be split across party lines. Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) stated that “Schools offering only virtual learning should not expect to be fully funded,” and President Trump stated that virtual learning has “proven to be terrible.” California governor Gavin Newsom ordered that 5.5 million California students must have their classes held online. It nonetheless currently appears that schools offering a hybrid model will be equally funded—but for how long? At a time when schools critically need funds in order to operate safely in-person, the federal government is threatening to cut funds unless schools ignore the safety of their students. This, in turn, means that schools will have to find ways to make up the difference, which could lead to an even greater level of remote learning in the future—not for safety reasons, but budgetary ones. 

As both students and faculty grow accustomed to remote learning, it becomes difficult to envision remote education once again being removed from the classroom entirely. Perhaps a teacher is absent and asks the class to go on Zoom, or perhaps some schools, as previously mentioned, need to cut costs and decide to permanently implement a hybrid approach. It is uncertain exactly how remote learning will change the scope of the education system, but now that it has been implemented, it seems difficult to imagine it ever diminishing completely. As remote learning becomes more ingrained in society, we must seek collaboration between students, faculty and policymakers in order to create a more equitable system—but currently, the inequalities in our education system are more glaring than ever. For now, it remains a question of whether politicians and administrators are willing to bridge the gap between low-income students and more affluent students. If not, the future of education appears bleak, as does the future society that it fosters. 

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