Lack of resources and internet reveals ‘homework gap’ across districts

May 21, 2020 — by Oliver Ye

As of May 1, over 124,000 U.S. public and private schools have been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting at least 55.1 million students, according to an article published by Education Week. Over 17 states have ordered a school shutdown until the end of the school year, an unprecedented move aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

While health experts believe that closing schools is a necessary move to curb the spread of the virus, the transition from in-person to online lessons has been difficult, especially for low-income districts.

 

Technology troubles

For affluent suburban communities, such as Saratoga or Los Gatos, where most students already had personal digital devices like laptops and phones, as well as a WiFi connection, the transition to this new mode of learning has been challenging but possible. Education has continued.

But in low-income communities, the challenges have been steep and learning has mostly stalled further. The pandemic has revealed what experts are dubbing the “homework gap,” or existing problems in the educational infrastructure where a majority of resources and assignments are online, but are inaccessible to students without a stable internet connection. 

According to 2018 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), 3.1 U.S. million households with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection at home. And while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued the  Keep Americans Connected Pledge on March 13, which asks internet service providers to waive late fees and continue to provide Wi-Fi for free for the next 60 days, this does little to help those who had no internet access begin with.

According to Jenna Watchel Pronovost, executive director of the Ravenswood Education Foundation,, is facing significant difficulties in transitioning to an online curriculum after schools were closed on March 13. The Ravenswood School District consists of 3,632 students and has one middle school and five elementary schools in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

In Ravenswood, over 90 percent of students are part of low-income families and 60 percent of the students are legally homeless, according to Pronovost. Although the district advised students and teachers to transition to online platforms like Google Classroom and Seesaw to continue educational activities, this approach was impractical for the many students who lack access to Wi-Fi or electronic devices. 

“Over half of our students do not have access to the internet at home, beyond their parents’ phone,” Pronovost said. “So in a family of four or five, they only have access to one device, and it’s really difficult [to learn].”

 

District responses differ

Schools in Ravenswood were shut down for the first three weeks of shelter in place, as the district scrambled to patch together digital learning resources. The district-wide school shutdown started March 21, but Ravenswood was only able to officially start teaching again on April 13. The school will continue remote learning until June 10. 

According to Pronovost, since most children living in East Palo Alto do not have extracurriculars or at-home activities, there was little to no learning going on for the first three weeks of shelter in place as the district was still distributing devices.

In contrast, the Los Gatos Saratoga Union High School District was able to transition smoothly to online learning; the district used only one week for teachers and students to get used to digital technology and to hand out digital devices to those who needed it. Then school began again on March 23.

According to Traci Bonde, director of instructional technology in LGSUHSD, since the district already had pre-existing carts of Chromebooks, it wasn’t difficult to hand Chromebooks out to students who needed them at home.

So far, the district has distributed 75 Chromebooks and 10 hotspots to students and staff who lack the appropriate digital resources to continue online learning. District personnel are continuing to lend devices on a weekly basis. 

“Our biggest challenge remains meeting the needs of students that are up in the Santa Cruz mountains and have no reliable Internet option,” Bonde said. “Though we have partnered with a variety of internet services, we still have families that are not in range of any kind of reasonable internet.”

 

Existing disparities exacerbated 

While LGSUHSD already had access to many devices to distribute to students that needed them, Ravenswood had few available before the pandemic struck.

To combat the lack of resources, the Ravenswood Education Foundation has purchased 400 iPads and STEM home learning kits for its transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first graders, as well as other Chromebooks and digital devices for older students. To fund the $200,000 purchase, the foundation launched an emergency fund, a move that protected them from pulling money from the 2020-2021 school year budget.

Had the district pulled from next year’s budget, they would have lost funding for summer school or the cost of professional development for teachers, according to Pronovost.

“I think the underlying issue amongst all this is, certainly, all of these problems existed before COVID-19, and what this really does is highlight the disparity between the experiences of our families living here and the rest of the country,” Provonost said.

The homework gap, exemplified by Ravenswood, disproportionately affects racial minorities. Ravenswood is 83 percent Hispanic. 

Internet access has now been made a necessity for students across the world, but for many students in Ravenswood, the lack of internet access was a significant setback in completing homework. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a nonprofit funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, has stepped in to provide 500 hotspots to families in need throughout the district.

Ultimately, the coronavirus situation has highlighted the discrepancies in technology between districts of different economic status. 

Some SHS students have tried to be positive contributors to bridge these gaps. Among them is senior Alex Wang, who has been teaching for the past two years at the nonprofit organization Silicon Valley Youth in order to raise money to support underfunded districts like East Palo Alto and South San Jose. 

Silicon Valley Youth, which was founded in 2015, is led by a group of Bay Area students and has donated its proceeds from student-taught classes to fund educational projects in low-income districts, such as the purchasing of a kiln, violins, and iPads for the Ravenswood arts, music and educational programs.

“I think Silicon Valley Youth’s organizational structure is really great because my impact is twofold, both on the students I teach and on the students who receive the money raised,” Wang said. “What brings me back year after year is being able to share my knowledge with my students and knowing that I can make a difference in underprivileged districts.”

Wang recognizes that for many students living in privileged districts, there may be a disconnect in the understanding of others’ educational struggles since they don’t see them in their own classrooms. But that doesn’t mean students should exempt themselves from the issues.

“I think the main ways to solve this education gap between different districts are volunteering our time and volunteering our money,” Wang said. “While it may be difficult to physically help underprivileged students, we can offer to tutor struggling students and help them navigate new technology.”

 

If you would like to support the Ravenswood school district, please donate at the Ravenswood Education Foundation  

 

Add new comment

CAPTCHA
Prove that you're human: