Students experiencing poverty are already behind. The pandemic is making it worse.

After the COVID-19 outbreak when schools closed, the transition online was difficult for teachers and students alike. But children from families experiencing poverty have faced additional challenges with technology and internet access, making virtual learning harder. Children living in poverty already experience educational inequality, which negatively impacts their development and education and leads to an achievement gap across socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. With the addition of the pandemic, experts fear that students will fall further behind and the education gap across the country will grow.

Virtual learning is not equitable

Because families experiencing poverty don’t have disposable income, many don’t own computers, tablets, or pay for broadband internet access. Instead they rely on smartphones and mobile data for their technology needs. But activities like schoolwork can be difficult to accomplish on such a small screen, and because mobile data typically slows past a point of usage, it becomes harder to do things like stream videos, video chat, and make downloads.

Youth literacy instructor Sara Jochems explains, “Virtual learning is not equitable for many of the families we serve. Although St. Paul Public Schools allowed youth to keep their school tablets for the duration of the school year and during the summer months, that does not guarantee they have high-speed internet, if any internet at all.” She continues, “If students cannot access their school’s education platforms online, how are they supposed to accomplish schoolwork or seek help from their classroom or support teachers?”

Schools later delivered hotspots to those without internet access. Unfortunately, these hotspots were not always powerful enough for digital learning, especially when multiple students in a home were trying to go online at the same time.

“We know that some of our families have limited access to phones, tablets, computers, and Wi-Fi, making it more difficult for the children in their home to engage in online learning,” says Parent and Early Childhood Education (PECE) manager Amanda Williams. PECE works with preschool students not yet in the public school system, and because of this, they weren’t able to benefit from school tablet and hotspot rentals. “The pandemic has made disparities in access to technology even more evident,” she says.

The education gap is big—and it could get bigger

Minnesota has one of the worst education achievement gaps, with disparities across both socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. Only 37% of students from families earning low incomes are proficient in math and reading compared to 68% of their higher-income peers. And only 30% of Black students are at grade level compared to 65% of White students. Furthermore, Minnesota has racial and ethnic disparities in poverty, meaning that Black, Indigenous, and people of color experience poverty at greater numbers than White people, with nearly 30% of Black and Indigenous people living in poverty compared to just over 7% of White people.

These disparities can be traced to a number of policy and structural issues related to housing and education. Because schools are funded most by property taxes, schools in low-income neighborhoods receive less money than those in high-income neighborhoods. And the damaging history of redlining, racial covenants, and other forms of housing discrimination caused clear housing segregation in the Twin Cities, forcing BIPOC families into low-income neighborhoods. Children then attend poorly funded schools with fewer resources and less-qualified teachers, resulting in a lower-quality education and creating a harmful achievement gap.

Experts fear that the disruption to learning and the lack of access to online tools during the pandemic will increase education disparities among children. Neighborhood House made it a priority back in March and continues to prioritize providing home-based education opportunities to our participants. Through quick action, strategic partnerships, and the continued adaptations of our online offerings, Neighborhood House is working to meet the needs of the community and get students back on track.

Making virtual education more equitable

The first step to making sure all our students could continue their educations during the pandemic was to ensure access to technology. So with the help of Comcast, we made sure our participants could access free or low-cost high-speed internet. The Rotary International Foundation and the St. Paul Rotary Foundation provided us with a tablet lending library so that students can log onto class, complete assignments, and connect with teachers. Anyone who needs a tablet can borrow one, whether they’re a parent in our PECE program, an adult learner in our adult education program, or a student in our literacy program.

The second step was to take our in-person programming online. Preschool teachers have been working closely with our youngest students to get them ready for kindergarten through weekly activity kits, teacher videos, and online lessons. Virtual summer camp is keeping our older kids engaged and curious through online learning platforms and weekly themed kits that promote literacy, STEM, and the arts. And our literacy program is helping children improve their English reading and writing abilities through one-on-one digital tutoring. Each week this summer, we’re delivering weekly activity kits to all of our students with educational games and activities. These, along with digital learning opportunities, are designed to get our students back on track. And even though we can’t be together in person, teachers will be engaging with students face-to-face through video calls, giving them the ability to talk through any questions or concerns they may have with their activities.

Students need your help

In order to provide an equitable education to our students, we need your help. There are new costs and materials associated with online learning that we weren’t able to plan for this year. And with the addition of the pandemic, our students are facing a greater possibility of falling behind. You can provide the educational activities and materials they need to get back on track. For only $20, you can provide two books for a student working on improving their English reading skills. And just $50 provides activity kits for five preschool students so they can practice concentration and develop their fine motor skills. And for $120, you can cover the cost of one week of activities for all 50 summer camp students. You can give children a summer full of learning. Will you give a gift today?

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