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How the coronavirus pandemic is deepening the digital divide for students of color

·5 min read

When two LatinX children made headlines for doing their online school work in a California Taco Bell parking lot because they didn’t have internet at home, it called attention to the the harsh reality students of color disproportionately face in the U.S. when it comes to virtual learning in the COVID-19 era.

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Many students are not set up for online learning, says Emma García, an education economist at the Economic Policy Center. Garcia notes that the problem is really two-pronged: one social and one economic, and the two often intersect.

“Education during the pandemic assumed that all students have access to appropriate digital devices, that there was no digital divide. Unfortunately, not only have we seen there is, but also [that] there is a second digital divide. Some low-income children and Black and Hispanic children are more likely to lack them.”

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 30.6% of Black households with one or more children age 17 or younger lack high-speed home internet —affecting over 3.25 million Black children.

NYC Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams tells Yahoo Finance that he is all too familiar with the digital divide along racial lines.

“It’s no surprise that any issue that’s affecting the community, you’ll see the Black and Brown community getting hit harder. So it was COVID, homelessness, security, all the things that we see magnified. And with remote learning, unfortunately, many of the communities don’t have access to the same resources, whether it’s the hardware that’s needed or the internet service that’s needed.”

Williams tells Yahoo Finance that despite the struggles, New York City has been working on getting these much-needed tech resources to students who need them, but more needs to be done.

Emiliana Vegas, co-director of the left-leaning Brookings Institute’s Center for Universal Education and co-author of the report “Unequally disconnected: Access to online learning in the U.S.,” says that there is huge inequality around the U.S. when it comes to virtual learning.

“One in 10 of the poorest children has little or no access to technologies. For example, 12.2% of respondents of households earning less than $25,000 a year said that they rarely had a digital device that their kids could use for learning. Around 10% said that they have no access to the internet.”

Vegas notes that when she looked at what was going on at the state level, she and co-author Victoria Collis found that students who live in poorer states are even more likely to be disadvantaged.

“For the same income bracket of $35,000 per year in the five poorest states, the number of kids who do not have access to any device is 6.3% while in the five richest states it drops to 1.6%.”

Vegas tells Yahoo Finance that a big driver of this inequality is state tax revenue, since local funding makes up most education funding across the country. The availability of the internet depends on the availability of resources at the community level. Since many communities of color have a lower income level than their white counterparts, this leads to inequalities when it comes to virtual learning.

The gap between races when it comes to virtual learning is especially noticeable in large U.S. metropolitan areas.

“Overall, for the U.S., you can see on an average that Blacks are much less likely to have devices for learning, and the city by city differences vary,” she said. Vagas tells Yahoo Finance that in Detroit, this form of educational disadvantage affects children in almost 1 in 5 Black households.

Jenna Sheffield, assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven, tells Yahoo Finance that the divide is not only about race but also about socioeconomic status. She also brings up how vital parent participation is when it comes to virtual learning.

“People of color disproportionately work as essential workers. In addition to that, sometimes being in low paying positions, they’ve also been exposed to COVID. If they’re ill, that can prevent them from overseeing or helping out with their children’s schoolwork, and that should be a potential factor to consider,” she said.

She notes that the digital divide also extends to higher education. “Sometimes, I think there’s an expectation that students should have a laptop if they’re coming to college. But not all universities have a laptop requirement, and you don’t want something like that to impede any student’s learning.”

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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