EducationStacy M. Brown

Challenges Black America Face with Distant and Virtual Learning During COVID-19

Students, teachers, parents and administrators face ever-rising challenges as the coronavirus pandemic continues to force changes in how young people receive their education.

The challenges are particularly pronounced in the African American community, where access to the internet, working parents, and a haphazard learning model have undermined pre-pandemic gains.

Education experts have agreed that when students of color in underserved schools must go to blended or fully remote learning models, the digital divide gets broader, more profoundly affecting them.

Their school attendance plummets, along with their understanding of the curricula, their motivation to learn, and subsequently their grades.

“The digital divide again doubly impacts these students, as it completely stops our tutoring with almost all of our school partners,” said Richard Kaplan, the executive director of IvyTutorsNetwork.com, a New York City Department of Education-approved vendor that teaches students in multiple underserved public and charter schools in the city’s Bronx, Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods.

“Given that the schools are struggling to pay for and provide the most basic teaching during the pandemic and, further, administrators now lack the budget for outside tutors, we have been unable to help,” Kaplan said. “We are no longer allowed in the classrooms for health reasons, and the students — many of them homeless — lack reliable internet connections or suitable devices for effective remote sessions.

“For some, fully remote actually means they might as well be in Tahiti or Timbuktu, inaccessible to effective teaching and all but forgotten,” Kaplan said.

The distance learning scheme or the online classes method of teaching are good strategies in reducing physical contact and helps limit the spread of the virus, asserted Lewis Keegan, owner and operator of SkillScouter.com, which aims to help potential students find their learning paths via online learning platforms.

“However, the solution might not be as inclusive, especially for people of color in other parts of the world,” Keegan observed. “This is because not everyone is privileged for such amenities. Some areas across the globe are still not introduced to the concept of the internet.

“Aside from this, having devices such as laptops and phones for learning are not cheap and easily accessible. Because of this, more practical options are chosen by parents like spending their money in food and sustenance, rather than education.”

As the pandemic shuts most people in for what promises to be a long, cold and socially distant winter, families are suffering, offered Dr. Karen Aronian of Aronian Education Design LLC.

“Without a doubt, people of color are our most vulnerable populations. Special-needs education students in isolated rural communities, those who are homeless, and food insecure, are in dire education straits,” Aronian said.

She noted that some reports have revealed that the pandemic has forced students to lose as much as 50 percent of their academic growth in math, at least 30 percent of ELA, and perhaps a full school year of academic growth in some cases.

“Strain, struggle, and hardship abound in communities of color, which carries over into family life and lack of hope,” Aronian said. “Children’s education becomes secondary to the basic needs of a home and family. The traditional in-person school has been, for many children, a respite from home life, family problems, and dysfunction. Without school, education has fallen off the radar in homes where survival is first, and education is a much lower rung during COVID times.”

The pandemic has especially been tough on marginalized communities, including those with special needs, added Lisa Lightner of A Day in Our Shoes, an organization that advocates on behalf of special education.

“I have been chatting with all kinds of families, including Black and brown families,” Lightner said. “Here is some of what I’m seeing. The challenges that these families are facing aren’t necessarily due to their skin color — but because their skin color makes them much more likely to be in another category of marginalization.

“For example, lower socioeconomic status or non-native English speakers — if assignments and instructions are not being provided in the parents’ native language, then there is much less parent participation and follow up for school and assignments,” she said.

“If a child is in a lower socioeconomic category, then they are less likely to have high-speed internet or a device to use even to access the lessons,” Lightner continued. “I know the Philadelphia School District had to get a grant to purchase tens of thousands of Chromebooks and the like.”

According to a recent Duke University panel at the school’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, many Black and brown individuals face challenges that affect their and educators’ ability to resume in-person education safely.

The panel concluded that the issue is a double-edged sword because wealth inequity also makes it harder for these communities to learn remotely.

The average Black household in North Carolina, where the panel convened, is about $800,000 less in net worth than the average white home.

According to the Public School Forum of North Carolina, 72 percent of Black and brown students in the state’s public schools have parents who lack secure employment, compared with 21 percent of white students.

That equates to lower-wealth households having had less access to opportunities for higher-quality education and access to postsecondary studies, education officials said.

Further, Education Week reported that in-person learning yields superior educational outcomes for primary and secondary students — and that the pitfalls of virtual instruction are especially pronounced in minority communities and those living in poverty.

School districts around the country that are strapped for cash have found it increasingly challenging to tackle the learning barriers minority students disproportionately have experienced during the pandemic.

“The reality is in many economically distressed counties, over 60 percent of families don’t have reliable internet access, and that disproportionately affects students of color. In one of my counties, over 70 percent do not,” said Alex Beene, an adult-education and high school teacher in Tennessee.

“And while I try to supplement those households with additional packets and materials, it’s just not the same,” Beene said. “It’s impossible to attend daily classes and submit assignments digitally if you can’t even connect to join the conversation.

“Many families of color also lack adequate nutrition and a culture of learning in the home,” Beene continued. “When schools are closed down, not having access to school lunches or educators that motivate students to go higher academically can have lasting effects that will stretch on long after the pandemic.”

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