Educators are fearful that learning gaps will widen as schools stay closed--and for good reason.
Dubbed the "digital divide," research has long established that America's poorest students have significantly less access to technology than their more affluent peers. Last year, Pew Research estimated than a quarter of American homes are without broadband. This includes urban and suburban families who cannot afford the cost but also rural communities with limited or no access.
Even when online learning is an option, research generally indicates that face to face education is more effective than online, especially with struggling students.
Not all remote learning solutions require the internet. In some districts, students are receiving paper homework packets. Teachers are calling students by telephone to maintain contact. A recent report from Public Policy Associates describes the extent of problem in Michigan.
Districts are scrambling to provide needed technology to families. This can mean providing Chromebooks and other devices as well as hotspots, but the problem of access remains. Schools are working hard to provide support to families unfamiliar with these technologies. Some districts park school buses in public parking lots to broadcast a wifi signal.
Teachers are also affected. There are reports of teachers without internet access, especially in rural areas, driving miles to work in their cars in parking lots with wifi.
Students with special needs or for whom English is a second language are at serious risk as schools and parents struggle to fill the gap.
Researchers have found that summer reading loss (often called the summer setback) contributes to the reading achievement gap between low and high socioeconomic (SES) children. The simple intervention of providing children from low SES homes free books (especially if the child self-selects them) has a significant effect on reducing the summer setback. Books have the added benefit of being a low tech solution. Some districts are distributing bags of free books to their student's homes.
To make matters worse, research shows that teachers of lower socio-economic students receive poorer training in the use of technology.
Ironically, state legislatures are threatening massive education cuts for next year, right when we will need more educators, not fewer.