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Opinion: COVID-19 pandemic highlights 'homework gap' for low-income, minority students

Jim Doyle

As school districts across Michigan prepare for the likelihood of more distance learning this fall, school boards, mayors, city councils and Congress are looking for ways to help. When schools closed in March, teachers worked overtime adapting lessons to an online environment, and parents turned kitchen tables into classrooms.

Despite these efforts, “attendance” plummeted and homework suffered in the move to distance education. Worse, the drop was biggest for children in low-income families. 

For years, educators and policymakers have raised alarms about the “homework gap” — students whose families don’t have the digital skills, a computer or broadband connection at home. The national experiment with remote learning is telling us that these and other issues — teacher training, parental bandwidth and ill-fitting curricula — are all at crisis levels. 

In Philadelphia public schools, average daily attendance fell from 92% to 57% when classrooms moved online. In Chicago, fewer than 60% of all public school students engaged with remote learning three or more days a week. A survey of students in Miami’s Broward County public schools found large numbers of students didn’t speak to any educator or counselor in their school for a week or more at a time.

Many students lack the tools to do school effectively home from home, Doyle writes.

Black and Latinx students, who traditionally face greater educational inequities and are now being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, engaged at even lower rates. One national survey found that Black and Latinx teens were 15-20% more likely than white teens to report being worried about falling behind in school during the pandemic.

Then there is the problem of computer hardware. One in 5 parents say their kids haven’t been able to finish remote schoolwork because they don’t have a home computer. The result? Even before COVID-19, 45% of teens living in low-income households sometimes or often resorted to typing essays and doing other homework on their smartphones. Imagine those students trying to participate in a Zoom lesson or complete a geometry test on one. 

Next, imagine trying to keep up with that Zoom lesson when you’re hungry. Twenty-two million students rely on free or reduced-price school lunches, making school lunch programs the second biggest anti-hunger program in the U.S.  

Finally, imagine a third grader trying to download software, open an account and log in to an online lesson platform on her own. Many parents struggle with basic “digital literacy,” according to one survey.

All this helps explain why some schools are handling quarantine better than others. While 85% of school districts across the nation made sure their students received some form of grade-specific curriculum in packets or virtual assignments, only one-third of districts expect teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement or monitor academic progress for all their students. School districts in affluent communities are twice as likely to expect teachers to deliver real-time lessons to groups of students as school districts in low-income communities. 

No single booster, school district, state Legislature or industry can solve this alone. Broadband providers’ programs offering free or low-cost service to low-income students are a starting point, but they only address one part of a complex problem. To attack the whole problem, we need to work together, and we need to think big. 

The federal CARES Act provided $13 billion in grants to local school districts to help. Those funds should be used to retrain teachers, increase digital literacy for parents and students alike, and arm every computer-less household with a laptop or desktop. Federal E-Rate and Lifeline programs should be expanded to make sure every household is connected to broadband.   

And the education community must join with the business community and political leadership to help the transition to distance education be successful and to recognize its many challenges. 

The good news? The money we invest in closing the homework gap today will help reduce the “achievement gap” once schools are back to normal.  

Before COVID-19, children from affluent households arrived in first grade far ahead of children from low-income households. And students from affluent households were almost five times more likely to graduate from a four-year college by the time they are 24 than students from low-income households.  

New and better online tools, teacher training and subsidized laptops and broadband could level the playing field for those who were poorly served before COVID-19. In other words, we can make lemonade out of lemons if we use the emergency tools created for today’s quarantine to solve our long-term equity challenges. 

Jim Doyle is president of Business Forward, a national business group that works with more than 100,000 business leaders across America.