This week, Washington state governor Jay Inslee announced that the state’s schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year, mandating that the state’s more than 1 million K-12 students would be learning from home through the end of June. These students are in good company: To date, more than a dozen states have shuttered a collective tens of thousands of schools for the remainder of the year or until further notice in an attempt to stem the coronavirus’s spread. Many schools are turning to virtual lessons to get students the information they need from home.
These closures are good for public health, but for students who need an education, they come with some hurdles. As educators and advocates detailed in a New York Times piece Monday, low-income students are struggling to adapt to this this new learn-from-home lifestyle, with some missing more classes than usual, and others logging off entirely—moves that could have consequences that ripple through the rest of these children’s educational careers, and potentially the rest of their lives.
It’s worth noting that absenteeism among the impoverished is nothing new. This could be due to unstable housing, lack of reliable transportation, needing to babysit siblings while the parent works—you name it, students have probably struggled with it. In one 2018 survey, NYU researchers found that while rates of “chronic absenteeism”—defined as 18 days of of school missed per semester—had been on the decline for low-income students over the past decade, the absentee-rate gap between high-poverty and low-poverty students has never been higher. As of 2018, the researchers found that New York City kids coming from high-poverty neighborhoods were roughly twice as likely to be chronically absent when compared to their peers coming from low-income or moderately impoverished neighborhoods.
And while online learning solves some of the issues these students might have when trying to get to school, it introduces plenty of others. As of 2019, an estimated 17% of students nationwide don’t have access to a computer at home. For those that do, an additional 18% lack access to broadband internet. In both cases, the lion’s share come from—as you might’ve guessed—low-income backgrounds. In the past, some of these students might have relied on local libraries, restaurants, or coffee shops to get a decent signal, but the coronavirus has shut those doors the same way it closed the doors to their schools.
This isn’t just an issue among smaller or more rural school districts. Last week, LA city officials reported that roughly a third of its student base—15,000 students—had been entirely absent since the coronavirus forced campus shutdowns in mid March. More than 40,000, meanwhile, haven’t been in daily contact with their teachers. Per the New York Times reporting, some teachers in similar lower-income communities were reporting fewer than half of their students participating in recent classes—compared to the near-perfect attendance of the more affluent schools the reporters surveyed.
But even when these schools reopen — and the timeline is still a bit spotty there — the damage that’s done here could be permanent. For young students, chronic absenteeism can crater their ability to read and write or do basic math. For older students, being overly absent or dropping out can shut them off from the path to a high-paying career later in life. No matter the age, absenteeism can be linked to increased anxiety and depression, as well as putting the student at higher risk for substance abuse and nonviolent crime later on.
Some tech companies have offered their services to help schools fight the digital divide. Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently announced that his company would distribute 4,000 free laptops to Californian students that need them, and volunteered free internet access for 100,000 “rural households” in the state. Meanwhile, this week Amazon offered to donate more than twice as many laptops to Seattle Public Schools, which has its own long and storied history of battling poverty. We’ll just have to wait and see whether these planned rollouts will make any sort of dent for the students who need them the most.