Faced with unprecedented national and regional lockdowns, schools have had to quickly adapt so their students could still access education. From physics to public health education, everything moved online, but this may not be as inclusive or effective as we thought. In fact, it seems that remote learning leads to poorer outcomes than traditional classrooms, and this is especially true for younger children.
Children from low-income backgrounds fair even worse. Some even lack access to a computer or stable internet connection, which makes remote online learning extremely challenging. Now, a new study published by researchers at Columbia University found that closed schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately composed of nonwhite students, as well as students with low scores for math and English proficiency or who are poor enough to qualify for free meals.
This means that the pandemic is even more damaging to national education than previously thought. Every passing day that schools are closed widens the achievement gap even further, which could result in potentially lasting harm to a generation of children.
Feeling left behind
To conduct their study, the researchers analyzed anonymous cellphone data that tracked the movement of more than 100,000 schools. If traffic to a school in October fell by half or more compared to the same time the previous year, the researcher would label it ‘mostly closed’. If traffic declined by 25% or less, the school was classed as ‘mostly open’.
While the pandemic caused a great deal of disruption in classroom learning across the country, the researchers found that 58% of nonwhite students had to rely heavily on remote learning compared to just 36% of white students. According to the study, the share of students enrolled at closed students was 51% among Black students, 60% among Latino students, and 64% among Asian students.
These racial disparities are largely driven by geography. Although nonwhite students comprise a minority at the national level, they disproportionately live in big cities where the pandemic has been more damaging and Democratic-leaning states that have typically emphasized social distancing more than Republican-leaning states.
“The average racial composition of closed schools is 25 percentage points less white compared to schools operating in-person (40% versus 65%). Moreover, closures are more common in schools with a higher share of students who experience homelessness, are of limited English proficiency, are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, live in single-parent families, or are racial/ethnic minorities,” the authors wrote in their study published in OSF Preprints.
For many families, this sudden switch to online learning coincides with hardship at home, whether economic or medical in nature. Previously, studies found that job losses have disproportionately affected low-income and minority workers. Additionally, the death rates due to COVID-19 among Black and Hispanic/Latino people are much higher than for white people, in all age categories.
These new findings add to evidence of the coronavirus crisis’ starkly inequitable toll on low-income Black and Latino communities, showing its not just that family members from parents to school children have had their lives and odds of success in the future severely disrupted.