The United States has entered a ‘third’ wave of Covid-19 , and many students are entering yet another month of online learning. The American education system has long been plagued with racial and socio-economic inequalities, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide shift to online learning has transformed what was an already widening inequality gap into a massive chasm.
For the Fall 2020 semester, there are an estimated 56.4 million elementary, middle, and high school students enrolled in schools across the United States. Of those students, 50.7 million (89.9%) are enrolled in public schools, and 5.7 million (10.1%) are enrolled in private schools. The disruptions to the K-12 education system due to the pandemic have been vast, and researchers are only just beginning to understand the fallout it may cause. As the government continues the debate over its next relief package, it must take urgent action to prevent the current “learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe.” This post will attempt to call attention to just two of the most urgent issues facing our nation’s education system.
One of the most blatant instances of educational inequity during the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability of smaller, private school institutions with ready access to capital to offer in-person learning while their public-school counterparts are forced to postpone openings or delay in person learning altogether. Take for instance, the case of New York City, home to the nation’s largest public-school system. Despite the fact that New York was the first large city to reopen all of its public schools, the initial start date was twice delayed as the city worked to overcome numerous obstacles associated with maintaining adequate safety protocols and social distancing. In-person attendance still only accounts for a little more than half of the total enrollment. The public schools are open on a hybrid basis, with students physically attending one to three days a week. However, student experiences vary drastically—of those enrolled in the hybrid program, “some students will report to classrooms just one day a week and learn at home the rest of the time, without any live instruction from their teachers, and others will learn remotely even from school buildings.”,  Adding to the mounting anxieties, when faced with a compounding financial crisis this summer, the city cut $182 million in funding for the Department of Education in July (the Education Department budget is set to lose a cumulative $405 million over the next two years). The cut to the Education Department reflects the massive hit the city’s finances have taken due to the pandemic, with the city facing a $9 billion citywide budget shortfall this fiscal year.
In contrast, the city’s private schools have multi-million-dollar endowments which have enabled some schools to return entirely to in-person learning. The Collegiate School, a private school for boys with a reported endowment of $73.3 million, reopened its lower, middle and upper schools in September for all students. When the school began in-person instruction, it purchased and provided weekly COVID tests for each student, faculty, and staff member that were present in the school’s building. The school replaced all ‘collaborative desks’ with single desks which could be distanced appropriately, and “provide[d] each student a polycarbonate desk shield.” Similarly, the Riverdale Country Dale School, a co-ed private school located on 27.5 acres in the Bronx, is operating a hybrid model where students attend in-person classes on the school’s campus one or two days a week and learn remotely on the other days. The school has purchased both tents and trailers on their property to create additional outdoor and indoor learning spaces to allow for social distancing.
Research has shown that online learning is fundamentally inferior to in-person learning, largely due to the lack of “meaningful interaction between students and faculty members,” so it should not come as a surprise that many wealthy parents are attempting to enroll their children in private schools that will be offering in-person learning, even when that switch comes with a hefty price tag. The National Association of Independent Schools (a U.S.-based membership organization for private, nonprofit, K-12 schools) said in August that “58 percent of its schools had reported an increase in interest from the previous summer.” There is real cause for concern when those who can afford the $50k+ tuition these private schools charge are able to purchase their child an entirely in-person learning experience, and all those who cannot are left with the mediocre systems of hybrid or online learning. While safety should be, and is, of the upmost concern to the New York City officials, there seems to be scant attention paid to ensuring an equitable education across socioeconomic lines.
Second, educational inequity persists even among students who are enrolled in the same school. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 4.4 million households with children do not have consistent access to computers for online learning during the pandemic, with respondents noting that a computer was available “sometimes, rarely, or never.” The numbers regarding internet access are similarly alarmingly high—a staggering 7%, accounting for 3.7 million households, had internet available sometimes, rarely, or never. The data notes that while “half of households were provided computers from schools, [only] a small fraction were supplied with devices to access the internet.” Of those without internet, “34% reported not having internet because they were unable to afford it, 4% because they did not have a home computer, and 4% because an internet connection was not available in their area.” Thus, “at least 42% of children without home internet will face barriers to connectivity.” This digital divide “disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income families.” The data may be even more drastic because even “those households that are online may lack the bandwidth to stream an online class.” What’s more, “educators worry that the ongoing economic fallout [from COVID-19] means that when families are forced to choose between paying for food, medicine and the internet, the number of children without access could surge—along with disparities in education.”
Obviously, for students relying on online education, the lack of internet access poses an insurmountable barrier. In response, some districts have found innovative ways to help students access their online education resources, including turning school buses into mobile Wi-Fi hubs, and creating Wi-Fi mega-hotspots that can be accessed by driving up to school buildings. It is clear that there are workable solutions to closing the digital divide the COVID-19 pandemic has created, but any solution will require money and investment. Because many states are struggling with drastic economic crisis, the federal government must make education spending a priority in its next relief bill.
See Back to School Statistics, National Center For Educational Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372#:~:text=How%20many%20students%20will%20attend,the%20United%20States%20(source).&text=Of%20the%2050.7%20million%20public%20school%20students%20(source)%3A, (last visited Dec. 18, 2020).
 See id.
 See Policy Brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond, United Nations (Aug. 2020), available at https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/08/sg_policy_brief_covid-19_and_education_august_2020.pdf.
 Eliza Shapiro and Mihir Zaveri, New York Becomes First Big City in U.S. to Reopen All Its Schools, NYTimes (Oct. 1, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/01/nyregion/nyc-coronavirus-schools-reopen.html.
 See id.
 One unexpected upside is that “under the mayor’s plan, there will probably be no more than a dozen people in a classroom at a time, including teachers and aides, a stark change from typical class size in New York City schools, which can hover around 30 children. See id.
 Aliza Chasan, What the $182M cut to the Education Department budget means for students, teachers at NYC schools, Pix11 News (July 1, 2020), https://www.pix11.com/news/local-news/what-the-182m-cut-to-the-education-department-budget-means-for-students-teachers-at-nyc-schools.
 Reema Amin, In financial crisis, NYC cut $707M from its education budget. These programs will feel the effects, Chalkbeat New York (July 22, 2020), https://ny.chalkbeat.org/2020/7/22/21334981/education-budget-cuts-hiring-freeze.
 See At a Glance, Collegiate School, https://www.collegiateschool.org/about-us/at-a-glance# (last visited Dec. 18, 2020).
 See Reopening Information, Collegiate School, https://www.collegiateschool.org/about-us/reopening-information# (last visited Dec. 18, 2020).
 See id.
 Reopening Plan, Collegiate School (July 30, 2020), available at https://bbk12e1-cdn.myschoolcdn.com/ftpimages/37/misc/misc_187457.pdf.
 See Covid-19, Riverdale School, https://www.riverdale.edu/covid-19/ (last visited Dec. 18, 2020).
 See Internet Access For Students At Home, USA Facts (Sep. 24, 2020), https://usafacts.org/articles/internet-access-students-at-home/.
 See Kaelyn Forde, No access: Remote learning widens US digital divide for students, AlJazeera (Oct. 23, 2020), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/23/covid-exacerbates-us-digital-divide-for-students-without-inter.