How virtual learning led to racial inequity in education achievement gaps 


April 8, 2022

Editor’s note: CHN Intern Sara Chepkoit is a senior at Mount St. Mary’s, majoring in political science. 

As families continue to navigate the pandemic, Black and Latino students remain at risk academically. One critical reason involves virtual learning. 

Early on, virtual learning was viewed as an innovative and necessary response to school closings. Students couldn’t be in the classroom in the pandemic’s early days, but they could still learn, the thinking went. 

But it did not always work out that way. 

When virtual learning began, it put some parents in a bind. They needed to supervise their children as they attended virtual classes, making sure they paid attention to the lessons and completed homework assignments. But that was more difficult for some families than it was for others, and the result is that not all students had the tools needed to succeed.  

At first glance, the flexibility allowed by virtual learning seems like a positive. You don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home, you can wake up minutes before class, and walk steps to your dining room table as opposed to catching the bus to school. But virtual learning requires parents to invest perhaps their most precious commodity – time – in order to properly supervise their children’s online academic activities. 

And spare time is a commodity many parents don’t have – especially when it comes to families with lower incomes, including many Black and Latino families. 

With the arrival of virtual learning, we quickly witnessed inequities in the areas of internet access and education technology. Some schools or districts took it upon themselves to distribute computers, and others went the extra mile to provide and pay for internet access. Many families used what they had at home or turned to smartphones for the schools or districts that did not provide adequate assistance.  

But the National Center for Education Statistics found that income levels went hand in hand with a household’s access to computers and the internet. The higher a household’s income level was, the more likely internet and computer access were always or usually available; these households did not have to depend on computers or internet access provided by the school or district.   

By contrast, households with lower incomes relied on computers supplied by the school or district, but most of these households did not have internet access always or usually available. The study notes that smartphones provided most of the internet access for low-income households but did not allow the same range as a computer does. Students using smartphones to attend virtual classes were limited in how they interacted and engaged with course material and peers — potentially causing them to fall further behind academically. 

Moreover, as virtual learning expanded, learning hours in a typical school day declined. Students’ attention spans shrank, and sitting in front of a screen for extended periods per day did not help them retain information. Teachers spent more time reviewing material than teaching new material. Children fell behind with no motivation to catch up. As growing numbers of children became discouraged from continuing their academics, we saw an increase in chronic absenteeism and unenrollment. 

Unenrollment levels, specifically for the youngest of children, have been problematic. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 49 states and the District of Columbia saw pre-k enrollment drop by 22 percent and kindergarten enrollment drop by 9 percent in the 2020-2021 academic school year. Younger children required more attention and guidance with virtual learning, but many parents did not have the time to shadow their children throughout the school day due to work, meetings, appointments, and other commitments. 

Black and Latino students who have lacked the necessary resources for formal learning may also not have had an available parent/guardian to be on top of their schoolwork, deadlines, and class schedule consistently — not because they did not want to but because other responsibilities had to be met to maintain household or daily routines. We then saw the issue of chronic absenteeism arising, and if children do not have someone to tell them to go to school, there’s no motivation to attend. Parents have delayed their young children’s start dates at school because of all the responsibilities they’re juggling. 

Thankfully, programs like Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, otherwise known as P-EBT, were implemented and continue to relieve some households from the stress of having to budget additional money for meals. While free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs covered most meals while children were in-person at school, being home all day required more money for groceries. 

The strain that virtual learning has caused has further widened the education gap. Students’ mental health is at risk with increased anxiety and depression and no motivation to commit to virtual learning fully. A lack of motivation leads to less focus, increased absences, and low test scores. Students’ mental health is getting worse, which will result in an increased number of children in need of medical attention. Not all children will have access to mental health professionals. School counselors may not have the full capability to meet every child’s needs. Children are suffering now, and this could also lead to adverse long-term effects.  

How can this affect Black and Latino students’ futures? 

Innovate Public Schools found that lower GPAs lead to a loss in annual incomes in adulthood by a range of $1,400 to $2,000. Adding in preexisting income inequality gaps will further set students back financially for years to come. Virtual learning widened education gaps, and as schools have transitioned back to in-person instruction, more significant efforts must be made to reverse these results. 

virtual learning