TACOMA, Washington — Across the globe, parents are sending their children back to school in possibly one of the most uncertain climates ever. While some are scrambling to find access to a computer and reliable internet connection, others are trying to figure out how they can keep food on the table consistently. The question of whether or not to send kids back to school has plagued parents across the globe for months. While this has become a universal struggle, it affects children and parents in impoverished and financially challenged areas more significantly. With the prominence of online learning, impoverished communities are heavily experiencing the digital divide amid COVID-19.
Online Learning and the Digital Divide
Online learning has been the saving grace for many students and districts since the pandemic began. However, access to a computer at home and a reliable internet connection is not the reality many children face, particularly in financially at-risk areas. In addition, many disadvantaged communities rely on their schools to distribute food and clean water. Since the start of the pandemic, these services shut down along with the schools. Conversely, some parents are sending their students back to school in underdeveloped areas where poor infrastructure and facilities cannot properly combat infection and the spread of COVID-19.
Given the resources needed to treat the virus, parents in impoverished areas are facing significant challenges in sending their kids off to school. Although the situation is complex and continually developing, here are the key things to know about how COVID-19 is changing schools in impoverished areas.
Choosing Whether to Shut Schools in Impoverished Areas
Schools and parents must weigh the cost-benefit of shutting schools down. One South African publisher notes that the death rate among school-aged children is relatively low, and, therefore, not a huge risk to a community. The Conversation cites a statistic that in any given year, the “mortality risk” of a child in South Africa is 1 in 1,000 for children aged 0 to 19. This would mean 435,000 deaths.
However, the most apocalyptic COVID-19 predictions placed the number of deaths at 48,000. While this poses a significant risk, many school districts feel this is not enough to send children home and away from other services they receive at schools. For example, in impoverished regions, many students receive free or reduced meal plans, which help cut down the number of extremely malnourished children. Following the lockdowns, the world has seen these numbers increase along with the number of malnourishment-related deaths, specifically among children.
The Challenges of Online Learning in Impoverished Regions
Homeschooling requires more than just internet access. In his article, Wim Van Lanckin notes that domestic factors, such as income level, affect children’s reading and arithmetic skills more than some may think. This means that it is not necessarily the in-class time that matters most, but the time that kids spend studying or working on homework at home. Children that come from stressful backgrounds, such as homes that experience domestic violence or abject poverty, are now experiencing these stressors full-time. Studies have shown that the number of households experiencing domestic violence and substance abuse is on the rise since lock-downs started as well.
Childcare is now a major question in low income to impoverished households. In recent months since the shutdown, the world has seen a massive recession that promises to affect many worldwide. However, many families do not have the luxury of living off of a savings account. Now, more than ever, parents will be forced to pick up whatever work they can to make ends meet. Given the economic climate, this may force them to work odd hours, but now children are no longer “in school” for a set amount of time. It can be expected that children will be left on their own for longer periods, which can add to childhood stress and trauma.
Protecting the World’s Most Vulnerable
Online Learning only resolves one aspect of the COVID-19 crisis. As the United Nations notes, the shift toward digital education has allowed instruction to continue in some capacity throughout the pandemic. However, this is limited to children with computers and internet access at home as not all learning is transferable to an online format as well.
Moreover, many children, particularly those with difficult home situations, may find it difficult to focus. While this seems like a normal problem, losing months and possibly years of education at the hands of online learning promises to have lasting societal impacts. In terms of emerging from poverty, education has the greatest possibility of improving living standards. However, the United Nations fears that the limited accessibility of online education will only increase the divide between socio-economic classes globally.
Multiple organizations, both large and small, are working to lessen the burden placed on children. Given the tragedies the world has seen since COVID-19 first took hold of the world, it can be easy to assume these challenges are ones that cannot be overcome, something we must simply weather. This crisis, however, spurred humanitarian projects to help the world’s most vulnerable. For example, the United Nations has constructed the Road Map, a plan that outlines steps that states and private organizations can take to help to end the fragmentation of classes caused by the digital gap. The Road Map has a plan to get reliable and affordable internet access in all areas of member states by 2030. Though this is a long way off, this promises to have many benefits for children, in both a scholastic and personal context.