In the summer of 2021, my children attended a camp near the border of WV and Ohio. We had been warned that there were no cell or internet signals on the grounds, so the kids would be cut off from communication for a week. “How refreshing!” I thought. A mini detox from all things technology!
As I drove them to the camp, I was aware of the moment my GPS stopped transmitting, as I expected would happen. But I thought we would be in the middle of nowhere, away from people. That was not the case. I was surprised by how many homes, and small communities were scattered in that dead zone.
At that point, schools had been fully virtual for a year, and there was no end in sight. I wondered how on earth the children living behind those doors could manage to stay enrolled and thrive in school when the internet was not an option where they lived.
It prompted a research frenzy, and what I found out was beyond discouraging.
The Center for Disease Control defines Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) as “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.” Access to quality education is considered an SDOH because higher levels of schooling afford people benefits that allow them to live longer and healthier lives.
When the advent of COVID-19 forced schools to go virtual, we realized that education was yet another area in which the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated existing inequities between the White community and communities of color. The term Digital Divide, coined in the mid-1990s to describe the differences in internet access between groups, became a focus once again. A report by the Mckinsey Firm found that in May 2020, on average, 90% of White students “always or usually” had access to a device and internet for learning, compared to 85% of Latino and 77% of Black students.
Those numbers improved overall by October 2020, after states and local districts took action to correct the situation, but continued to remain lower for students of color. However, more concerning, a Common Sense Media report recently updated in August 2022 stated that around 16 million K-12 students in the US lack adequate access to the technology needed to participate in distance learning. Of those students, only 18% are White.
In a traditional year, the achievement gap between White and Black or Latino students is already significant, according to Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. It makes sense that the pandemic, which negatively affected most students’ learning in general, would exacerbate this gap. The same Mckinsey report explained that, while most students fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, students of color fared worse. When the report was written in December 2020, the data suggested that by June 2021, White students would have lost 5-9 months of learning in math, for example, and students of color would have lost between 12- and 16 months’ worth of progress.
And the pandemic’s effect on educational inequities did not stop with K-12 education.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported the economic fallout of the pandemic affected people of color disproportionately. This economic fallout resulted in widespread college enrollment dropping during the same period. The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit focused on education, found that in 2020 college attendance among low-income students of all races declined, and Black enrollment declined in all types of undergraduate institutions, but particularly in community colleges, which cater to low-income students.
The Office For Civil Rights of the Department of Education found that during the 2020-21 academic year, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) saw declines in enrollment numbers that were much higher than those reported by predominantly white institutions. What is troubling about this, as Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, told Inside Higher Ed is that “education is a great equalizer and does provide upward mobility. But if students are struggling with food and housing, if they have children and families to support, they may choose not to prioritize their education right now,” creating a whole generation of people who skipped college.
This knowledge may seem overwhelming and a source of despair to the reader. But knowledge, as the adage states, is power, and awareness is the first step in advocacy and change. Regardless of our role in society, as followers of Jesus, we are called to work for the good of our fellow humans. Being aware of these inequities in education can create better informed voters, teachers, parents, advocates, and social change agents in us. As James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
By Gabriela Buitrón