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April 28, 2020

COVID-19 Presents Challenges to Equitable Learning

MHT Partners  | Education Investment Bank

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the critical role of education technology in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With little-to-no time to prepare, schools across the country shuttered their doors and have attempted to shift classroom teaching to remote learning, without any precedent. Digital learning programs that have long been powerful tools for supplemental instruction are proving to be increasingly important in maintaining instruction during these extended school closures. That said, districts are confronted with different challenges in implanting distance learning which begs the question: Will the responses to COVID-19 end up privileging wealthier school districts thereby widening the gap for students in districts with limited access to technology and resources?

Education has evolved tremendously from the traditional methods of teaching from a decade ago. Namely, digital learning in the classroom is much more pervasive today and is used to deliver both supplemental and basal content. In districts where one-to-one learning has already been implemented, teachers and students are already accustomed to digital devices in the classroom. Thus, the transition and use of these devices and learning applications from home is not an entirely new concept. By lifting of take-home restrictions of devices, districts with one-to-one capability have been able to put devices in the hands of every student, allowing for continuity of learning for even the youngest learners. Though students are no longer sitting in a chair in a classroom led by a teacher, they are being instructed to interact and respond to digital content in a meaningful way. This engagement is absolutely happening in an online environment, which suggests that virtual learning in some districts is occurring successfully!

On the other hand, not all school districts have access to the best resources, whether fiscal, technological, or personnel in nature. Shifting education into the online realm from home has proven much more challenging for districts with partial availability of devices and internet connections at home. The timeline for instructional continuity for districts with fewer resources has proven to be longer. For districts serving a portion of the 30 million students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, remote learning has taken a back seat, at least initially. These districts spent the first weeks of closures prioritizing and streamlining distribution of food and meals to students. Upon ensuring students were being fed, these districts then turned attention to solving the problem of implementing learning from home. Yet, uphill challenges emerged in this area as well, forcing districts to get creative in bringing the classroom to the home. Approximately 5 million students lack internet access at home, due to low income or rural living situations. Education officials in South Carolina have resolved such issues by utilizing idle school buses, equipping them with wifi and parking them in specific neighborhoods to bring connectivity to these homes. However, connectivity is only useful if students have a device to go with it. In districts with fewer devices than enrollment, typically older students received priority in obtaining a loaner device. This leaves many households sharing a single device among siblings, which creates time constraints for each learner. As a last resort, a number of districts have gone “back to the basics” and send home paper packets and activities that do not require internet. That said, this approach is not particularly interactive, nor does it represent the gold standard of learning. Finally, there are teachers who are suddenly required to reimagine instruction and assignments in a digital and remote setting. Numerous challenges are presented including the varying levels of technological expertise by the individual teachers, as well as parents and students themselves. As each district does its very best to overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19, it’s apparent that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

While it is too soon to determine whether COVID-19 will result in wider learning gaps for U.S. students, on the surface, we see that different districts have dealt with different priorities depending on their student demographic. No doubt, on the surface it appears that students with greater internet connectivity, familiarity with technology for learning purposes, and in-home availability of books and materials will have much higher probability of benefiting from remote learning during social distancing. These advantages are further pronounced by the fact that schools that have implemented digital learning in the classroom for many years prior to the pandemic have teachers that are inherently more prepared to teach remotely. One thing can be certain, the longer schools remained closed, the more likely equity in K-12 learning will deteriorate.

MHT Partners, a leading education investment bank, welcomes further discussion on the effects of COVID-19 on the education industry: Rebecca Bell (rbell@mhtpartners.com); Shawn D. Terry (sterry@mhtpartners.com) or Alex Hicks (ahicks@mhtpartners.com).

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