By Rann Miller
I’ve spent the majority of my professional life working with high school students. The “war” stories I’ve shared with colleagues have often served to reaffirm their desire to not work with high school students. However, working with teenagers has always brought me professional and personal joy; I realized early on that I have a heart for high school students.
As we experience the Coronavirus pandemic in real time, where educating young people is concerned, we’ve focused our attention on the impact it’s having on students, how educators are responding, and will respond further, and the plight of parents who must now lead homeschool in some capacity while managing their work responsibilities. Thinking about those things is valid.
However, my thoughts are with high school students.
Research says that teenagers are most at risk when school is interrupted. I know they appear to be more self-sufficient than younger students, but they still need our support — even if they don’t always know it or always want it.
Numerous articles speak of how remote learning poses challenges to Black and Latinx students; particularly those in low-income areas. But those challenges hit differently for teenagers; specifically, those who fit the demographic of the students I’ve worked with for the majority of my career: Black and Latinx from traditionally low-income areas.
Across the country:
- One-third of households with children aged 6 to 17, and whose incomes fall below $30,000 a year, do not have high-speed Internet at home.
- 25% of teens in households with an annual income under $30,000 lack access to a computer at home, compared with just 4% of those in households earning over $75,000.
- Nearly 40% of low-income Black and Latinx families go without decent web access.
- Roughly one-in-five Black teens (21%) said they use public Wi-Fi to do schoolwork due to a lack of home internet connection, compared with 11% of white teens and 9% of Latinx teens.
- 11% of Black teens and 18% of Latinx teens lack access to a computer at home.
School districts are struggling to provide critical learning tools and resources to the students who more often need it most. According to surveys conducted by Education Week, high-poverty districts are less likely to offer live instruction to students and are far less able to reach all students, along with urban and rural districts.
That translates into students failing to complete schoolwork assigned remotely.
This is particularly troublesome for Black students. For example, 25% of Black teens say they can’t always finish their homework due to the digital divide—13% say this happens often, whereas just 4% of white teens and 6% of Latinx teens say they have the same problem.
Educators say that some students and their parents have dropped out of touch with schools completely as families struggle with the broader economic and health effects of the Coronavirus outbreak; disproportionately impacting the Black and Latinx communities.
Many of the students that I work with are from Camden City, New Jersey; well over 90% of the population is Black and Latinx. More than half of the students in my district are Black or Latinx, and 65% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. About a quarter of Camden households are without a computer and 40% are without a high-speed internet connection.
To mitigate these challenges, philanthropic organizations have donated funds to districts to purchase laptops for high school students in Camden and Philadelphia. Although these efforts are welcomed, the struggles remain; best crystalized by the students themselves.
The Very Real Impact of Digital Inequity
I run an after school program where our district provides students with enrichment and career exploration activities five days a week, ranging from cooking and baking to theater and engineering. While our students take advantage of our many activities, the majority of those who attend our program do so simply because we have computers with internet access.
I came across a Facebook post where a local clergyman posted a few student responses to an essay contest where students vied for the opportunity to receive a laptop. The students share their stories, which really speaks to the challenges they’re having with remote learning.
A freshman spoke about the challenges of completing class assignments on a cell phone. A high school senior testified to his anxiety of attempting to complete college work as part of a pre-entry program, in addition to his remote learning, without a laptop. It’s more likely than not that these students are unable to get their work done remotely.
In a recent national poll of students ages 13 to 17, 41% of teenagers overall, including 47% of public school students, say they haven’t attended a single online or virtual class; only 18% of private school students said the same thing. Students in districts big and small are having a hard time to connect, including students in Los Angeles and in New York City; the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.
When asked if students are worried about keeping up with their grades while in-person school is canceled, 66% of Black students and 70% of Latinx students said yes. When asked if students are worried about the effect the Coronavirus may have on their families’ ability to bring money into the household, 74% of Black students and 87% of Latinx students said yes.
In that same Facebook post, another freshman shared that the difference between having a laptop and not means failing classes and disappointing her younger siblings who look up to her. Another student shared the challenge of sharing one laptop between him, his brothers and his mother who is enrolled in college. He and his brothers take turns with his mom doing class assignments late night so others can complete them earlier in the day.
I have no doubt that these students and their peers will persevere.
However, the opportunity gap, such as the lack of personal access to the internet and computers, in addition to stress as a result of the current pandemic, makes it harder. Even if those students I’ve mentioned receive a laptop, there is still the challenge of acquiring internet access if they don’t already have it, and affording it.
Telling kids to keep working hard doesn’t solve this problem. Implicit bias and unconscious bias training can’t solve this problem. Private philanthropy won’t solve this problem. What it will take is for all people who claim to love children and work tirelessly on their behalf to acknowledge that behind the racial disparities that have manifested in what we see is the racism that is responsible for them.
So long as educators believe that a lack of hard work or personal choices or cultural norms are to blame for the undeserved circumstances of children, racism remains deniable. It’s not enough for educators to acknowledge the disparities in access to computers or wi-fi. Educators must exhibit the courage to both explain why and allow the “why” to inform their work. The why is racism.
The same way respectability politics won’t prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, neither can it close the digital divide between Black and Latinx students with white students. What can and will close all gaps – digital, opportunity and otherwise – is identifying racism where we see it in our own ideas and in the policies, procedures, norms and values of our schools to replace them with all things antiracist.
Including identifying and replacing the racism within our plans for and methods of remote instruction during a suspension of in-person school.
Black and Latinx students don’t need another lecture on giving up vices or a motivational speaker using buzz words like grit, grind and hustle; imploring them to work harder in the face of adversity. What they need is antiracist action. Not education, but rather antiracism is the great equalizer.
Rann Miller is a Ph.D. Candidate at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. His writings on race, education and politics were featured in the Hechinger Report, Education Week and Black Youth Project.
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.