As a professor at the University of Virginia whose student body isn’t especially diverse, I’ve not come face to face with many of the harsh truths about inequities in our educational system. They’ve always been there, of course, including at UVA, but until recently, they were swept under the rug, hidden from my everyday awareness.
This past spring, COVID-19 pulled the rug out from underneath me. As I retrofitted my class Books Behind Bars to an all-online environment, I suddenly had students who missed classes, not because they were up late partying, but because they’d lost their part-time jobs and were scrambling to find new work just to stay afloat.
I had, in other words, students who were poor.
It shouldn’t have come as such a shock, but it did. This experience also has led me to think more about a problem that faces educators everywhere, whether they realize it or not: the effect of poverty on our students.
It’s well-known that poverty affects a student’s ability to learn. From substandard housing and poor nutrition to language and literacy development, there are a variety of factors that influence learning. While it doesn’t mean that there should be lowered expectations for students living in poverty, educators do need to understand how they can empathize and support their students.
As many schools are shifting to at least a partially virtual model for classes this fall, poverty becomes an even bigger issue. To attend class virtually, students need several things:
- Access to a computer or tablet with a camera/webcam
- Access to the internet
- A quiet space to learn (ideally a dedicated desk)
- Regular school supplies (notebooks, pens/pencils/highlighters, paper, etc.)
- Headphones aren’t required, but are helpful, especially if there are multiple students in the same household
But that’s just for the classes. Students also need:
- Regular meals
- Parents who are available to keep them on track and motivated (i.e., a parent that doesn’t work multiple jobs or can work from home/take time off to help “homeschool” their child).
And that’s not even taking into account the stress of poverty and how that affects brain development and attention.
The Achievement Gap is Widening for Students
Students across the country have been struggling to keep up since COVID-19 first hit this spring. A survey by the LA Times showed that “on average, about half the students in low-income-serving districts had computers available for school work when campuses closed. Among the largest districts, an average of nearly two-thirds of students had them.
But among the most affluent-serving districts, an average 87% of students had computers when campuses closed, and virtually every student — 98% — had them about three weeks later.”
Many schools and districts are providing their students with computers and hotspots, but it’s not just about the technology — 45% of respondents in a College and University Basic Needs Insecurity report from 2019 were food insecure within the prior 30 days and 56% were housing insecure in the previous year.
What Educators Can Do For Their Students
While some argue that universities need to plan for long-term virtual learning to provide academic continuity for all, Education Week has found teachers are also getting creative in order to reach students who may be more disconnected, especially in poorer or more rural communities.
“The vast majority of all schools are using email, and teachers in wealthier districts were more likely to post messages and videos online, the EdWeek Research Center found in early April.
But teachers in the lowest-income schools were more than twice as likely as teachers in those schools to use text messages, phone calls, social media, and printed communications to reach students, and they were also far more likely to send material out via snail mail.”
Other best practices include:
- Provide written and recorded instructions and recorded lectures.
- Don’t assume students know how to use the technology—offer instruction and/or support to help them get started.
- Have one place where students can find all course information and remind them to check their email, deadlines, course objectives, etc.
- Create a weekly schedule to help them stay on track.
- Provide clear, concise instructions and break assignments into chunks instead of a big project due at the end of the month/semester.
- Check in with individuals and be willing to adapt to individual needs.
For better or for worse, the educational landscape is changing in response to COVID-19. As educators, it’s our job to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need to be successful and to do our part to level the playing field. It’s unfortunate that it took a national tragedy to make me more aware of the impact of poverty on students.
Now that I know, I plan to use this knowledge to be a better teacher.
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