Education in the Time of Corona

By Thomas Holt Russell

Long before COVID-19 blanketed our entire country, African American students were on the losing end of the list for almost every matrix measurement for technology literacy. For example, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely than whites to own a computer or have high-speed internet service. Families earning under $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent.” This means that lower-income users have to do a task on their cell phones that typically would be done on computers, such as applying for jobs and seeking medical advice. According to Pew Research, the disparity in broadband access is called the “homework gap.” That is the gap between students that have high-speed Internet at home and those who do not. Five years ago, 35% of all lower-income households (of which Blacks represent a disproportionate percentage) did not have a broadband Internet connection.

The problem has just gotten worse with the pandemic that has put the entire world in turmoil.

Nearly one in five teens cannot finish their homework because of the digital divide. Many minorities depend on the library to access the Internet. With the COVID-19 epidemic, libraries are now closed, effectively blocking yet another road to the Internet. The majority of 8th graders depend on the Internet to get their homework done. Black students were already more likely not ‘to be’ able to do homework because of a lack of resources.

Teachers and students are now faced with teaching and learning from their homes. Many of the classes were not designed for online instruction. Some teachers have never used technological tools for teaching online and have to be trained. From the (minimal) survey I conducted with some of my teacher colleagues, I find that this on the fly adaptation from classroom to online is a significant shit-show. Teachers are working very hard to make this work, but we would be fooling ourselves to think that this overnight transition from the classroom to online would be smooth. I spoke with one teacher from one of the wealthiest school districts in Colorado. She told me many of the students are not motivated to complete the work, because teachers are not allowed to fail them due to the suddenness of the pandemic and the not so ideal learning environment the students are in. Depending on how long school is out, the consequences of this school year may last a long time.

Black parent involvement in their own child’s education has always been one of the most critical determinants for the success of the Black student. Studies have shown that parent involvement in education gives a better chance for the student to achieve academic success. Yet, as a whole, most academic measurements have Black students lagging behind in almost every major category. The challenges facing Black families during the pandemic are great. Education is only one of those challenges as African Americans are dying at a disproportionately higher rate, losing jobs or out of work indefinitely. Even though their child’s education remains an important aspect, there is a possibility that education will be put on the back burner. Mere survival in all aspects, physically, financially, and emotionally, will become the primary goal of many African American families, especially this summer, when school is officially out.

This is not a great picture that I am painting. However, historically, African Americans have already been through worse, and I do not need to talk about slavery. Only a generation ago, poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and lynching were still being used. And it was not until the Voting Rights of 1965, almost 100 years after the civil war, that African Americans were allowed to vote without the institutionalized mechanisms that were used to suppress their vote. The past is still with us in some ways. Right now, various methods of voting suppression, such as redlining, is still being used.

As a parent and educator, I urge Black parents not to panic. Be patient. Try to spend as much time as possible as your child works on their lessons. If that is not possible at least monitor what they are supposed to be doing. Keep open communication with school officials. Many schools have given their students computers and iPads to use. If a family has no internet connection, that may be a problem. But several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are offering free Internet access for low-income families. Parents may have to research and check around for services that will help for food, and soon money will be available for relief to pay rent. There will be innovation for education that will come up during the crises and will last long after the pandemic is over. Things such as new interactive educational apps, live television broadcasts, and new public and private partnerships will stay with us.

Most of all, we need resiliency. The pandemic will not last forever. Like everything else, it has a shelf life. We must hang in there and help each other whenever possible. The present education delivery is far from perfect. However, we have enough resources in our community and online to help students achieve a measurement of learning success before school is out for the summer. Every problem will not be solved, but a little will-power will go a long way to mitigate the effects of trying to teach and learn during a global pandemic.

God is with you.

Editor’s note: Thomas Holt Russell is the Cyber Education Program Manager for the National Cybersecurity Center. He received the 2020 Cyber Education Administrator of the Year award and wrote the book Binary Society.