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Remote learning exacerbates inequality. Here’s how we must support the most vulnerable kids

Without a radical reimagining, this school year is set to multiply already gaping disparities. 

Remote learning exacerbates inequality. Here’s how we must support the most vulnerable kids
[Photo: Matthias Heyde/Unsplash]
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My son finished elementary school at our local, Title 1 public school this spring. Distance learning under emergency conditions was a challenge. For some it was especially tough. Some kids never made it to class meetings. Other students shared one device among three or more siblings. The experience highlighted the significant challenge in making remote learning equitable in a country with deep economic stratification.

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Closing school buildings, like the pandemic itself, accelerates racial and class-based disparities in opportunity. If this school year ends up being entirely remote, parents who are essential workers will rely on extended family and older siblings to support learning from home. Many students will be on their own without an adult at home, or without an adult who is available and capable of supporting their learning throughout the day. Meanwhile, the most privileged families will switch to independent schools or hire teachers for separate learning “pods.”

The kids who need the most will get the least

The extensive outreach needed to make this school year less of a setback for the most vulnerable students is an overwhelming job. Teachers are already shouldering a huge workload, cramming in the skills and planning that they need to “go remote.”

My son’s teachers made extensive videos daily last spring. With each video, there were long documents attached, filled with numerous links. I’m sure it was laborious and exhausting for the teachers—and for us receiving them, too. What’s worse is that, for all this extra effort, the results were mixed at best.

To be fair, schools had little time to prepare. As an education consultant, I’ve worked with schools as they implement new educational technology plans, but we had the luxury of time for a planned “rollout,” often complete with a pilot program, and chances to gather feedback and improve.

Dividing and Conquering Inefficiencies

The current scramble toward remote learning means many districts are essentially inventing the wheel on their own. Instead, districts should reduce inefficiencies by centralizing some aspects of instruction to free up educator time to support all children—especially those who are struggling the most.

Districts and state and national leadership can make it possible for teachers to collaborate across districts.”

Districts and state and national leadership can make it possible for teachers to collaborate across districts and beyond to sidestep some of this inefficiency. Why should hundreds of teachers invest hundreds of hours making videos about centripetal force? Instead, teachers who are confident in presenting by using tech can offer demonstrations and mini-lectures on math concepts, history lessons, and grammar skills.

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Their colleagues—once they are liberated from pulling all-nighters fussing with green screens—can hold small groups and one-on-one meetings with students to support project-based learning, assess understanding, and help students who are struggling. While one librarian conducts story hour, another can be reaching out to families to find out what kids want to read and how best to get books to the family.

One special education teacher at a high poverty school in Chicago’s Uptown community told me she spent hours on the phone trying to guide a new foster parent through setting up a district-provided Wi-Fi hotspot. Creating space for this “hidden work” of equity and outreach is crucial—otherwise we are leaving vulnerable students out in the cold.

Schools can’t do this alone

Municipal bodies such as park districts and libraries are working to fill the void left by closing school buildings. All of these entities are careful to note that their staff are not playing the role of the child’s teacher, but that they can provide a safe space, internet access, and some social interaction to small groups of children.

In Boston, city councilor Julia Mejia conceived of a “learning lab” housed in a park district building to support four groups of students who would otherwise be without childcare during the day. Although these collaborations hold promise, several school administrators I spoke with pointed out that park district programs are unlikely to be able to support students with special needs. Families of these students described devastating social skills and learning losses during school closures. These students should be prioritized for in-person schools with trained educators, even before it is safe to open schools to all.

Focusing Services Where They’re Needed

Another vulnerable group of students schools can better support if they can free up some “people time” is their youngest students. Meeting these new kindergarteners (and preschoolers, if the district offers preschool) in person is crucial. For young children, at least some in-person time with professional educators is crucial. Small groups, meeting in an outdoor or well-ventilated space, are the safest way to make this happen.

By age 5, it is already late to identify certain speech, behavioral, and developmental needs, but it’s still far better than age 6. Zoom is simply not good enough. Parents “in the know” will advocate and seek out services for kids with developmental delays and special needs. But for other children, waiting a year might mean losing precious time and opportunities for interventions.

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Superintendent Dave Palzet in Pleasantdale, Illinois, described how they adapted the district’s preexisting kindergarten assessment for COVID precautions. “Teachers and kids used PPE, and we added some plexiglass partitions,” he says. “This way our team gets to meet with every student, even under pandemic conditions.”

In a Digital World, Analog is still important

We know that hotspots and laptops and tablets are crucial. Students need other tools to “do school” at home. The nonprofit Kids First Chicago released a study showing that families had more success with remote learning when printers, scanners, or printed worksheets were distributed, rather than relying on tablets or computers. “Families who had positive remote learning experiences often had supplies and resources provided to them by the school, including printed copies of textbooks, online math work, art materials, math manipulatives, science fair materials, novels, Pre-K classroom toys, workbooks, and other resources to supplement virtual instruction.”

How many printers are sitting in unused offices right now, and what would it take to get them to schools for distribution to families?”

How many printers are sitting in unused offices right now, and what would it take to get them to schools for distribution to families? A printer is incredibly helpful for families with multiple children attending school remotely. Allowing a first grader to handwrite a phonics worksheet while her fifth-grade brother uses the district-provided Chromebook means that kids can work in parallel rather than waiting.

An Opportunity to Reimagine Schools

Ultimately, consolidating the distance learning workload would free up hundreds of hours of educator time to focus on reaching and supporting the students who need the most and who have already suffered the greatest harm during this pandemic. Prioritizing outreach to the students with the greatest needs is crucial, as is supporting families with materials beyond hotspots and Chromebooks. Otherwise this year of remote school will multiply already gaping disparities.

We need to support the schools that are struggling to provide these resources and support students and their families in every possible way, even if it means trying something totally different or rethinking our ingrained ideas about school. Otherwise, the most equitable thing might be to do as Kenya has done and simply take the year off. That might be better than nourishing the brains of children who already have the most support and leaving the kids who need school the most to pick at the crumbs.


Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and Ed Surge.