It is always a challenge for teachers and school administrators to deliver the best possible educational options to students. The shutdown of school districts across the nation has made that responsibility even more daunting.

In Los Angeles, with a school district where an estimated 70 percent of children live in working-poor households, thousands of school students have no access to the internet or other devices at home. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has accepted the unprecedented challenge of continuing instruction via distance learning. The school district is engaged in an intensive effort to get K-12 students online during social isolation when normal tools of instruction and record keeping are temporarily unavailable.

Reality in nation’s second

largest school district

“We’re not dealing with an affluent community in a private school, so the foundation (to get more students online) wasn’t laid over the last decade,” said LAUSD Superintendent Austin Buetner.

Educating the nation’s second-largest school district is a difficult task. The disparity in connectivity between poor and wealthy households in Los Angeles has illuminated an area of America’s continuing digital divide. Education experts worry that lower-income students with little or no internet access are falling even farther behind their more well-heeled peers. They’re unable to connect virtually with their teachers, do research online, or collaborate with their classmates on assignments.

Some of the biggest gaps in connectivity lie in America’s inner cities. The Federal Communications Commission  estimated last year that about 21 million Americans lacked access to broadband. Economically-disadvantaged students face bigger hurdles in completing their assignments online. In May 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of adults in households making less than $30,000 annually do not have high-speed internet connections.

The lack of broadband connectivity can have a significant impact on student achievement. Pew found that the “homework gap”—or the lack of reliable Internet connection to do homework—was more pronounced among African-American, Latino and lower-income families in general. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, roughly 17 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 years were not able to complete their homework assignments because there was no computer at home and, if there was one available, no online connection.

A pronounced ‘learning gap’

Researchers at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study last week that revealed a stark difference in learning opportunities for low-income and minority families. They assert that a minimum 25,000 local families are suffering through a pronounced “learning gap” since the stay-at-home mandate to minimize the spread of coronavirus.

“The closure of school campuses is laying bare the disparities in household resources for effective distance learning,” said Dr. Herman Galperin, an associate professor with the Annenberg School. “Without aggressive initiatives from schools and local or state governments, low-income and minority students will fall further behind as a result of COVID-19.”

Galperin and his team examined household availability of two key components of distance learning: a residential internet connection, and a desktop or laptop computer. The research showed that one in four K-12 households in LA County lacks those resources. Among LAUSD students, one in three live in households without  high-speed internet or a computer.

The USC report found that only about half of the K-12 families in the bottom fifth of income distribution are prepared for distance learning. That compares to about 90 percent of preparedness for families in the top fifth of income locally. Further, households lacking distance learning resources are clustered in South and East LA communities of which less than half of families have the necessary technology resources for distance learning. Additionally, the report indicates that—regardless of income—students of color are less likely to have the necessary resources for distance learning because they reside in communities with underfunded schools and less advanced broadband infrastructure.

Needed equipment arrives for LAUSD

The LAUSD has tried to alleviate the gap in distance learning by investing $100 million to purchase devices for students. Early statistics were dire as the coronavirus began to take hold locally. During the first two weeks of school closures, Buetner said the district did not make an online connection with about 15,000 of its 120,000 high school students. Among this number, some 40,000 students had not made a daily check-in with their teachers.

Since mid-March, more devices have been arriving for LAUSD students in need of online equipment and Buetner hopes to have many more students connected by May.

“We’ve done phone calls, worked with the community organizations, and have sent out letters,” Buetner said. “We’re doing everything we can to find the equipment necessary to keep our students in a position to continue learning and not have any of them fall behind when school eventually reopens this fall.”

Statewide, about one in five students lack high-speed Internet or an appropriate computing device at home. Surveys conducted up and down the state have confirmed that roughly 50 percent of low-income families, and 42 percent of families of color reported that they lacked the laptop, Chomebook, or tablet needed to access distance learning.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued a call to action to business, government and community leaders to help bridge the digital divide. And individuals, companies, business leaders and philanthropists are stepping up.

T-Mobile is donating 13,000 tablet devices, in addition to 100,000 hotspot devices (in partnership with Google). Amazon is donating 10,000 tablet devices. Apple is working with 800 school districts throughout the state, offering free coaching sessions to teachers to help them with the transition to remote learning. And Verizon, in partnership with the State of California, is providing 250,000 students with unlimited Internet service at a discount.

Falling behind in grade-level work

It is not uncommon to find students from underserved neighborhoods performing grade-level work at two to three years behind their peers in wealthier communities just across town. Two of the biggest hurdles to moving America’s schools online have been an inadequate number of digital devices for students, and millions of families’ lack of high-speed internet at home. EdWeek Research Center reported that these gaps in basic technology are particularly stark along socioeconomic lines: In districts with the lowest percentages of students from low-income families, just one in five administrators in more economically well off communities report that a lack of basic technology is a “major” problem, compared with nearly two-thirds of school leaders in districts where the highest percentage of students are from low-income families.

“It’s the same story we’ve long known in K-12 schools,” said Dr. Janelle Scott, an education and African-American studies professor at UC Berkeley. “Districts with more resources are likely going to be able to avail themselves of higher quality instruction, and higher-income families are going to be much better positioned to support [remote] learning than less-resourced families who don’t have the privilege of staying at home.”

InnerCity Struggle, an organization advocating for equitable funding for quality-of-life services in underserved communities, polled more than 40 residents in South and East Los Angeles to discover one of the most predominant concerns for families is the lack of access to technology and internet in the house as they comply with “Safer-At-Home” regulations. They’re partnering with the Brotherhood Crusade and Community Coalition to launch an ambitious grassroots campaign to raise $400,000 to support 5,000 students in those communities with technology and emergency needs.

Parents, students and teachers

working together

All educators, however, agree that remote instruction technology must be available to all students. Schools must not be satisfied with “most” of the students having access to instruction while at home during the shutdown. Providing physical texts, materials and devices to students to use while at home—as well as the ability to connect with their classmates—will help ensure that no child falls behind.

Parents and guardians—not just students—must also be “connected.” These adults must be equipped to support their children with remote learning, be it digital or on paper. It is equally vital that parents and teachers work together this summer to help students in makeshift classrooms around the kitchen table as they do in their normal classrooms.

In addition, helping students and families during the crisis goes beyond textbooks. Remote lesson plans must incorporate student’s and families’ need for government and housing services, counseling and behavioral support.

“There’s so much loss and distress that is being concentrated in communities that need quality schooling the most,” Scott added. “I think there’s a need to pull back and think about what [public education] means in relation to the magnitude of this moment.”