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The coronavirus and achievement gap, by Julianne Malveaux

4/30/2020, 6 p.m.
The coronavirus has upended our way of life, especially in urban America, where social distancing has replaced the laughter of ...
Julianne Malveaux

The coronavirus has upended our way of life, especially in urban America, where social distancing has replaced the laughter of children playing on the street, the excitement of preparing for graduation and prom and the frenzy of last-minute test preparation.

Instead, educators are being forced to think creatively about how to efficiently deliver instruction to their students, especially because they cannot have physi- cal contact with them.

Many teachers are more than up to the task. Dedicated educators are emailing and snail mailing homework assignments and lesson plans, collaborating on assignments by telephone, engaging with colleagues using all kinds of technology. And many of them miss their students and continue to work as collaboratively as they can.

But the digital divide matters with much of our education, work and communication taking place remotely. Andrew Perrin, a researcher at the Pew Research Organization, has studied the digital divide. He notes that while African-Americans, Hispanics and whiteAmericans have nearly equal access to smartphones (about 80 percent of each population), white people are more likely than African-Americans and Hispanics to have desktop or laptop computers.

This differential access has implications for students and the achievement gap. While anyone can access the internet through a smartphone, some learning is better facilitated with a larger screen. The computer access gap is likely to be reflected in the achievement gap.

African-American and Hispanic households are less likely to have home-based broadband than white Americans. The broadband issue is significant when some classes are being streamed, or when people need to use electronic connections like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Cisco WebX, that require more bandwidth than students may have. Furthermore, the closure of libraries hits the African-American community harder than others because African-Americans are more likely than either to use the library internet for a job search, but others are likely there for educational purposes.

There’s more. Parents who don’t have the luxury to stay at home also may not be able to take time to help with homework. We know that African-Americans, especially African-American women, are more likely to work in lower-paying service jobs and may find it grueling to help with homework after a long day’s work.

Some institutions and individuals are stepping up to the plate, asking friends, churches and others for help in finding computers, purchasing internet access for students, developing partnerships with corporations and more. While these efforts are necessary and appreciated, a systemic approach to the achievement gap, and the way the coronavirus may have exacerbated it, makes sense.

There are opportunities to address the digital divide and the achievement gap through coronavirus relief money. About $3 billion in emergency education aid will be available to state governors, and according to Politico, U.S. Education Secretary Betsey DeVos said governors can use the money as they will. She suggests they use it for online learning.

Governors should use some of these dollars to narrow the achievement gap by targeting those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. That will make it clear that even during a time of crisis, we can still concern ourselves with equity issues, particularly as they affect young people.