Worcester is leaving low-income students behind

Uneven and inequitable access to technology is limiting chances for student success

THE COVID-19 CRISIS has thrown into relief the need for us to reassess the use of technology in education, public access to digital devices, and robust, reliable broadband as we make the shift from face-to-face to remote solutions for teaching and learning. In the months since the pandemic forced school closures, we have accelerated what had been an evolutionary approach to increased opportunities for student-centered, project-based learning with online features, to an immediate implementation of remote engagement as a foundation for all education.

Unfortunately, in Worcester, this shift has been stymied by uneven and inequitable access to these essential tools for learning.  According to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau study, Broadening Broadband, only 67 percent of city households had a broadband internet subscription, and 18 percent had no internet access.

This lack of access has had a disproportionate impact on residents of low-income areas. Many families rely solely on smartphones for all internet access, a modality not conducive to extended remote learning. Pew Research has found about 30 percent of those in households with incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone or have internet in their home. Lack of affordable access to the digital tools and resources that support learning burdens low-income students and impedes their economic mobility.

Anecdotal data reports kids sitting with parents in parking lots trying to capture an internet signal to participate in remote instruction, complete assignments, or otherwise engage with the schools. Since March, many of us outside the education system have felt the annoyance of signal buffering or screen freezing in remote meetings. It is not difficult to imagine the frustration of a young person trying to hear and understand a teacher or classmate, or master skills or content.

It is therefore not surprising that data from the Worcester Public Schools indicate that only 45 percent of students participated in remote learning during the spring shutdown. The district’s tardiness in distributing Chromebooks and hotspots, coupled with spotty and inadequate broadband, meant that many Worcester students spent over two months unable to access any digital instruction.

The stakes are high for our students and for our city. According to research by McKinsey & Company, the average student could fall as many as seven months behind academically as a result of remote learning transitions. The study anticipates a loss of 12 to 14 months of learning by students who had no instruction, with low-income students falling behind by more than a year, black students by 10.3 months, and Latinx students by 9.2 months. McKinsey estimates that this will exacerbate existing achievement gaps by 15 to 20 percent. Since Worcester, like its sister Gateway Cities, trails its suburban peers in education achievement, this is not an outcome we can afford.

Given the hastiness of the transition, many teachers do not have the depth of skills to construct a remote curriculum to meet the diversity of learning needs, whether those of advanced students, English learners, or atypical learners, among their students. While the changes wrought as a result of the pandemic have been disruptive, if we are thoughtful in capturing this moment by enhancing professional development we can provide new, individualized opportunities for student learning that meet common standards and allow students to pursue their interests and master skills through new digital pedagogies.

Urgent action is necessary to improve student outcomes. Worcester must provide, as does our neighbor Shrewsbury, robust citywide broadband to ensure all families have internet access. We need to provide devices to students for home and school use. The Worcester Public Schools need to provide teachers with the training and resources to ensure that virtual engagement and instruction are effective in remote settings.

This opportunity can re-vision teaching and learning, not to merely hold a place until we “get back to normal.” If we are to meet this challenge and realize the unexpected benefits it may hold, the community and the district need to collaborate to develop out-of-school settings for learning and engage families in creating effective learning environments at home.

Education is not the only sector affected by this disparity. This is a matter that affects nearly every aspect of our lives as the use of online applications in health care, banking and finance, retail, hospitality, and other areas proliferate.

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Unaddressed, these inequities will result in another social divide, one driven by access to and facility with technology. Technology should be regarded as a public tool to support learning, economic mobility, and the inclusive and equitable advancement of all in our community.

Jennifer Davis Carey is executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative. Joshua Croke is founder of Action! by Design, a community design and innovation studio. Clara O’Rourke is deputy director of the Worcester Education Collaborative. The Worcester Education Equity Roundtable includes 20 Worcester organizations working for education improvement.