COVID-19Social Issues

Unequal Opportunities For High School Students during COVID-19

With COVID-19 forcing students to turn to remote learning, one concern has emerged about students’ and parents’ ability to adapt to the new learning environment amidst COVID-19, as many schools are incorporating online learning as part of the curriculum. Since internet access, along with the other tools, such as laptops and stationery required are not provided to students, online learning is clearly disadvantageous for low-income families and neighbourhoods. As such, it’s important to examine which factors contribute to unequal opportunities for students during this pandemic.  

Unequal Opportunities For High School Students during COVID-19
Image Source: Worlds of Education

The Pre-Existing Wealth of Schools and Parents

The wealth of schools and parents could be the most problematic as it contributes to all other factors. To begin, the pre-existing wealth of a school determines whether that school is able to switch to an all-online learning platform or use paper packets which have many risks, including the risk of transmission between school personnel, students, family, and postal workers as the paper packets are circulated. This risk with paper packets is greater for schools with less money as wealthier schools immediately switched to an online platform they were using already, and the less wealthy schools without access to an online platform have no choice but to use paper packets. According to the World Economic Forum, “less than 25% of low-income countries have been able to set up remote learning platforms… [and] only 36% of residents of lower-middle income countries have access to the internet”. 

Moreover, the following chart from UNESCO shows that 80% of students are unable to have access to education since March, with 138 governments issuing country-wide closures of schools. 

Unequal Opportunities For High School Students during COVID-19

Source: UNESCO

Pre-existing wealth also determines how schools and students would deal with the lack of various resources, including food scarcity. Johns Hopkins University states that lower-resourced schools have done a great job in providing food not only for students, but for their families as well: “…you saw school districts take on the herculean task of making sure students were fed, and even beyond that, that entire families were fed”. Furthermore, Jaeger and Blaabaek found in their study that those in higher economic class were able to provide more physical resources, along with motivational and academic support for their children when compared to parents in lower economic class.

Thus, for students with parents of lower SES, schools must provide the resources they’re not getting at home. Regarding food, 310 million students were fed in school in 2019 alone. For technology, New Brunswick is providing financial support for students to purchase computers through a subsidy program aimed at low-to-middle income families. In Winnipeg, the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) is providing both food and technology as they had their bus drivers deliver laptops, food and learning materials to families earlier this year. 

The Inability of Schools to Decide on a Common Baseline 

A common baseline for schools that accommodates the needs of students is necessary as they have different available funds to support students. For example, while some districts in the United States have a “one-to-one laptop policy”, others don’t. This is because low-income neighbourhoods have fewer fundraisers for technology compared to high-income neighbourhoods. When deciding on a common baseline, schools must consider the needs of students in various scenarios such as mental health conditions, a differentiated learning plan, an IEP (Individualized Education plan) or those that require extra resources.

For resources, Jaeger and Blaabaek found that 32% of families with college education took out physical books, compared to 16% of those without a college education. This is important, as many parents had to use libraries as a resource to educate their children due to school closures. What this indicates is a need for a baseline minimum requirement that is funded and enforced by the government for the needs of all students.

Opportunity Hoarding by the privileged

Defined as the efforts taken by parents “to secure the best for their children”, opportunity hoarding is a sociology term used to describe how privileged families are transitioning to in-person education in the form of private tutors and by forming “learning pods” with people of similar social class. This is problematic as it is only done by those that can afford it, which further the gap between socioeconomic classes. Furthermore, learning pods give parents the option to send their children to learning pods instead of government funded schools after the pandemic ends because students will receive more attention than at regular schools. Due to the smaller class size (around 5), tutors will be able to spend more time with each student and, like other tutors, will be able to customize an individualized learning plan for students. If this happens, it will ultimately create a divide in schools between the privileged and the marginalized, and will decrease government funding as it is determined by headcount.

Learning pods are also problematic for families and teachers — it allows wealthier families to continue their work uninterrupted without the need of asking for accommodations, losing pay, or taking time off for their children. Meanwhile, low-income families have to take risks if they want to be at home for their children during online learning. On the other hand, tutors at learning pods will earn more than credited teachers at schools even though they don’t have the same background and experience as credited teachers — just for the sake of their own children while actual teachers in schools are continuing to work with what they have. This money that wealthier parents are willing to pay for their own children isn’t what they are willing to pay for the funding of teachers at schools. Thus, the wealthier will continue to stay wealthy, while others will continue to lose opportunities.

Unequal Opportunities For High School Students during COVID-19    Image Source: NORRAG

Potential Solutions for Low-to-Middle Income High School Students 

So what should be done? First, more research needs to be done on what support is needed for students in different scenarios. Then schools should decide on a baseline minimum requirement, where they should either fund teachers to replace tutors in learning pods and make them available for every student regardless of socioeconomic class, or prevent wealthy families from employing tutors for their children and provide more funds to teachers and schools to improve the learning experience.

The first option will prevent wealthier parents from hoarding opportunities, give more opportunities for teachers with credentials, and may even be helpful for reducing the transmission of COVID-19 as the classroom size would be around 5 students. Or the government can provide funds for the formation of learning pods as a temporary option for low-income families. It may also eliminate the need to provide students with internet and devices to access learning material. However, there will be transportation costs.

The second option will be best for current teachers, as they would have more funds to continue working without making any accommodations, while students will be able to get the closest student experience possible before COVID-19. Another potential solution would be to have the two-to three-week summer programs funded by the government be continued over the next few years; this will help students that aren’t able to participate in learning pods catch up on the learning gap. 

With either option, schools and the government must inform the wealthier families of the consequences of opportunity hoarding, especially in the long run. To make them listen, schools must be stern and state that learning pods are going to be available for everyone or for no one. Obviously, doing all of this will not remove all inequality — some students are in environments that make it more difficult to learn than others, and schools likely won’t be able to provide the emotional support that comes from parents. However, researching the kinds of support that students need and providing it will help decrease the gap between the privileged and marginalized.