Opinion: Online Learning Amplifies Inequity
By Abigail Marconi, Contributing Writer
Ever since Gettysburg College moved to online learning last March, we have all felt challenges and frustration with online school. Hearing fellow students mention “Zoom University” or post memes online are humorous ways to cope with awful circumstances. While online learning is inconvenient, we cannot forget that for many students it is more serious than that: it is a tragedy. Schools across the country should make it a priority to reopen in-person and end the inequity caused by online school.
Requiring students to attend school online can be an obstacle for them to access the resources they need. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.4 million children daily in 2019 before the pandemic. Economic research found that children from food-insecure households were more likely to receive their food and nutrient intake from school meals relative to other children. Children from food-insecure homes rely on in-person school to receive these free meals; for some students, this could be their only meal all day.
Not to mention the large disparity between students who have access to the internet and those who do not. Among children ages 3–18, 17 percent live in a household without a laptop or desktop computer and 14 percent do not have internet access at home. Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Native Alaskan, and homeless children have lower than average access. The transition to online learning is devastating and unattainable for students who simply lack the resources to complete their education virtually.
Closing schools can also negatively impact students’ health. Research shows that isolation places children at greater risk of physical, emotional, sexual, and domestic abuse. Reports of family violence have increased since quarantine measures were put in place. Schools normally offer a support network for children, but with schools being virtual, the abuse can remain hidden and children have fewer opportunities to call for help. School closures also take a toll on students’ mental health. Students are cut off from the support and services offered at their school, and often lack the privacy or financial means to receive counseling services online.
School administrators and government officials must consider these serious concerns when mandating online school. That being said, according to data from burbio, a tech firm that is tracking school re-openings, 23.7 percent of K-12 students are still attending “virtual-only” schools and 29.4 percent of K-12 students are attending “hybrid” schools, as of March 6, 2021.
Understandably, we want to limit the spread of COVID-19. Keeping schools closed may seem like a way to do that, but the CDC affirms that in-person learning has not been associated with substantial community transmission. Children and adolescents are less likely to be infected with COVID than adults, so the primary concern is staff members getting infected. The CDC reassures us, however, that if preventative strategies are used, then “transmission within school settings is typically lower than—or at least similar to—levels of community transmission.” In fact, staff members may be safer in schools than outside of schools. The CDC also recently updated their physical distancing recommendation to three feet for K-12 classrooms, making the lack of space in schools less of an issue. Once preventative strategies are implemented and enforced, schools need to reopen fully in-person.
The United States is fighting one tragedy by causing another. Forcing students to switch to online learning for an entire year—and potentially longer—has profound consequences for the present as well as the future. Keeping schools closed is putting kids in danger. Their futures are being put in danger, as well as their physical and mental well-being. Virtual school is exacerbating the hardships of disadvantaged students and strengthening the inequities that already exist in our country. All students will be deprived of the benefits of in-person education, especially populations that are already vulnerable and have been left behind. Science shows that it is safe for schools to safely reopen. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that we see schools reopen this spring and upcoming fall, for the sake of students and our country’s future.