The Digital Divide
I am worried for the kids I teach—for what this period of time will end up meaning to them, for what this public health emergency says about inequality in our country and who “deserves” access to resources, safety, and dignity.
Photo by Scukrov
Last month, I had a conversation with the principal of a Title 1 Elementary/Middle School in the city where I live. We talked about the new reality of distance learning, and the challenge it’s presenting our schools. The families of his school, like the families of mine, face inconsistent access to technology during the school closures of COVID-19.
But unlike my school, this principal’s school is planning to loan computers to families considered “disconnected” from distance learning. “We can’t wait for the digital divide to close,” the principal said. “We need to start closing it ourselves.”
Full disclosure: this conversation was, in fact, a job interview. I’ve been unhappy at my current school for much of the year, and this period of teaching from quarantine has thrown many of my school’s issues into sharp relief. Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to where I teach; they pervade many urban schools serving low-income students across the country.
The leadership of my school has long shown indifference toward implementing technology in classrooms in any unified way. Though my school has tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Chromebooks seemingly at our disposal, teachers are discouraged from using them.
Officially, the Chromebooks are for standardized testing that students take throughout the year. But these tests occur only a handful of weeks per year -- which should, in theory, create plenty of time for teachers to use Chromebooks in their classrooms. But in practice, we don’t have any way of signing the computers out, knowing when someone else needs them for testing, or coordinating a schedule across grade levels to know when they are available.
As any teacher knows, 90% of success in any lesson is directly tied to the quality of one’s plans. And if you can’t plan on having technology available, then it might as well not exist at all. Students then miss out on valuable opportunities to develop 21st century skills while tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Chromebooks sit most days totally untouched.
Because technology rarely factored into our daily instruction, we now face the effects of trying to build a digital platform from the ground up. Ever since the district decided to incorporate an online component of distance teaching, my school has been trying to play catch-up. Since nearly all of the online platforms we use are brand new to our school, we’re trying to teach parents and students to navigate these systems without any of the advantages of familiarity.
It’s hard enough to teach ten-year-olds how to enter in a website address when you can stand over their shoulder and catch their typos right away. Factor in distance, a wide range of devices, and the daily slog of bureaucratic inertia, and this task becomes nearly impossible.
Photo by Gajus
This new reality isn’t just an inconvenience -- it also comes with serious consequences when we can’t engage with students due to our slowness to adapt to a new reality.
We currently have no way to track the lessons students are or aren’t learning from home. So far, the school’s distance learning system is for students to work through paper packets. These packets are intended to provide two weeks’ worth of lessons that students would otherwise be learning in class. A recent packet we made was nearly 100 pages long.
To be frank, the packets are as boring as they sound, but they are accessible to all of our students. At the end of two weeks, the students return the packets to school and drop them in a box, where they are summarily ignored by every staff member in the school. No one even keeps track of which students have turned their work in, nevermind whether the work is done correctly or well.
Though we try to develop opportunities for online support, it’s hard to actually reach our kids. For example, the YouTube videos I created for the 120 fourth graders at my school to help with reading and math lessons have, on average, about 15 views each. And I’m pretty sure most of those views come from other teachers. We therefore have no way of knowing if our lessons are moving too fast or too slow, if our YouTube videos adequately explain new concepts, or if students are even doing most of the work at all.
Again, anyone who has even a basic understanding of the mechanisms of good teaching knows that you need to know what your students are capable of before planning your next lesson. Good teachers respond to their students’ data. With that data now beyond our grasp, we feel like we’re teaching towards a black hole, with no way of knowing what exists on the other side.
Even worse, we know that there are children in our school who live in unstable or dangerous home situations...but we can barely keep tabs on their well-being. The social worker and guidance counselor conduct home visits on some of our most vulnerable students, which certainly goes a long way.
But it would be so valuable if teachers could see these students’ faces every day, even if only within the small video box of a Google Hangout. In a period of extended isolation, teachers could be the connection that kids in difficult situations need to feel safe and loved. Each day that we fail to maintain this connection feels urgent and terrifying.
Photo of Baltimore by AppalachianViews from Getty Images Pro
I know that being a leader right now is fucking difficult. To quote pretty much every news article I’ve read for the last two months, we’re living in some unprecedented times, and I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have to call shots in a moment like this. But as we’re seeing daily on a national stage, good leadership is more important now than ever before. On a political level, it’s a matter of life and death. On the level of a single school, it’s a matter of whether 120 fourth graders will be prepared for fifth grade at the end of this period or not.
What’s disappointing is that my school isn’t struggling for the reasons that urban schools usually struggle. My principal is hard-working, not lazy or politically motivated. The teachers are incredibly committed and unwaveringly kind, not disaffected or cruel.
Yet what I have learned this year is that sometimes, a strong work ethic and a genuine desire to succeed is not enough to turn around a school mired in a long history of systemic racism, poor academic performance, and neglect from all sides of authority.
I am worried for my kids—for what this period of time will end up meaning to them, for the health and well-being of their family members, for what this public health emergency says about inequality in our country and who “deserves” access to resources, safety, and dignity. My kids are bright and thoughtful, and I am scared that what they will take away from this experience is that their country does not believe they are among the deserving.
My dreams recently have all taken place at school. In most of them, the kids and I are all back in the classroom right after quarantine has ended. I am happy to see them, and yet nagged by a persistent sense of uneasiness that something isn’t quite right. I try to teach, but inevitably, a crisis arises that keeps me from doing so—a fire drill, a missing student, an unwelcome visitor to class. The crisis never gets resolved. The uneasiness lingers long after I wake up.
By *Jackie C.
Teacher, 24, Baltimore