How remote learning amplifies inequities

No face-to-face contact does not mean racial barriers have disappeared - in fact, it has only led to new ones

March 8, 2021

According to Calculus Project founder Dr. Adrian Mims, particularly for students of color and low-income students, physical obstacles can stand in the way in a remote learning model. “There are a lot of problems where not everyone household has his or her own laptop or desktop where they can access their lessons at any given time. What do you do in a situation where there are three or four school age children and there is only one Chromebook, and all four of those students are supposed to be learning online?” (ILLUSTRATION BY ROSA CAMARAZZA)

The shutdown of schools in March 2020 came out of the blue. Many students suddenly had to take care of siblings, grapple with their worries about the COVID-19 pandemic, and completely adjust their lifestyles.

Students throughout the school faced a jarring transition into remote learning, and a disproportionate amount of the struggle fell upon the shoulders of our district’s most vulnerable students, particularly low-income students and Black and Latino students. Although educators and students are pushing for change, systemic inequities nevertheless have accompanied the remote learning model.

Uncovering the problem

The high school called on the Data Team, part of the district’s Office of Strategy and Performance, to analyze the inequities behind remote learning. They found that seven in 10 Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) students had been in danger of failing at least one class at some point during remote learning in the fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. In comparison, only 35 percent of METCO students were in danger of failing one or more classes before lockdown started. Additionally, over a fourth of students on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) did not pass one or more classes during remote learning last spring.

Social Justice and history teacher Kate Leslie said Black and Latino students, students in low-income housing and students with IEPs generally performed worse academically than their classmates during remote learning last spring. As a teacher, she noticed these trends across her own classrooms.

“It’s so blatant if you just think about who has the bandwidth to turn their camera on in a class, whose WiFi keeps going out at home, who doesn’t want to unmute themselves to share out in a class because they actually have their little brothers and sisters in the background because they’re also caring for their siblings during school,” Leslie said.

METCO Coordinator Malcolm Cawthorne said that the interests of low-income students and Black and Latino students were underrepresented during the remote learning planning process.

“I think what we do is we listen to a lot of the really loud voices. They tend to be, frankly, well-off white voices,” Cawthorne said. “We try to meet their needs, but that won’t necessarily mean we’ll meet the needs of every low-income Black student, for example.”

The Calculus Project, a program for Black and Latino students aimed at increasing their representation in high-level math classes, started at the high school in 2009 and has since spread to seven other school districts. Founder and Executive Director Dr. Adrian Mims said that racial and socioeconomic discrimination are closely associated with one another, with African-American students disproportionately likely to reside in low-income communities. These trends exist not only in Brookline, but across the nation at large.

“When you look at racial inequity, you also have to look at socioeconomic inequity. In a lot of cases, they go hand in hand. Your zip code determines a lot,” Mims said. “I grew up in South Carolina, and there are some areas that are very rural, and they are struggling with remote learning. Some of these are areas that are 60 to 70 percent African-American. People who live in these areas sometimes don’t even have a traffic light, let alone Internet access.”

On top of the connection to socioeconomic inequity making access difficult, there have been many factors in the past year that have made it less of a priority. Leslie said many African-American students were more deeply invested in the national news at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

“In June, we had the murder of George Floyd and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was a massive positive. But that also meant that a lot of students’ attention, understandably, was not on academics first. It was on survival. It was on world and national events,” Leslie said. “There were a number of my students of color for whom getting work done in June became an impossible task because they were wrestling with the racial trauma of our country, and they didn’t care about whether they got their Cold War assignment done. That doesn’t matter . What matters is what the world is going through.”

According to Cawthorne, small inequalities at the local level continue to hinder students’ learning, even after a summer full of adjustments. Cawthorne said that the high school’s materials pickup, which took place in early September, was unfairly difficult for METCO students.

According to Cawthorne, many METCO students live as far away as Mattapan and Hyde Park in Boston. These students frequently have working parents, so they had to take public transportation to the high school.

“If I’m a METCO kid and I have a class that ends at 3 o’clock during remote learning, and my parents are at work, it might take me an hour and a half to get to BHS if I’m commuting during rush hour,” Cawthorne said. “Materials pickup ended at 4:30 p.m., and nobody even asked me about .’”

In a Sagamore-administered survey, one student said they have not personally experienced an incident of racism during remote learning due to the lack of African American students in their Honors and Advanced classes. All responses were kept anonymous so that students would feel comfortable reporting any evidence of discrimination they witnessed.

“I don’t remember witnessing any racial discrimination, but that’s probably largely because the upper-level classes are so white and Asian,” the student wrote. “The most diverse class I’ve ever taken was my 9th grade Health & Fitness, and aside from that class I don’t remember even seeing a Black student again in any of my classes. It’s hard to discriminate against a minority that isn’t even present.”

Steps the school has taken

Mims said that the Calculus Project has had to adjust for COVID social-distancing guidelines.

However, according to Mims, the Calculus Project has continued to provide extra math support for Black and Latino students throughout remote learning.

“This summer, we offered math courses online. One of the components of the Calculus Project is the Pride Curriculum, where students learn about the contributions of STEM professionals of color and understand their history,” Mims said. “We modified that to where we brought in successful men and women of color to speak to the students over Zoom.”

According to Cawthorne, METCO students who lacked laptops and functioning Internet access were able to receive extra support and resources through the town of Brookline. Some Internet service providers offered coverage at a free or reduced cost to low-income families.

“Brookline has been really good about providing METCO kids with laptops, particularly early in March and April. They really helped families who had issues with Internet. AT&T and Comcast contributed a lot. Brookline was really helpful in trying to ensure that all families had Internet access,” Cawthorne said.

Leslie said the high school is committed to ensuring that all students have equal access to technology, regardless of socioeconomic status.

“There continues to be a push to make sure that students from low-income households have the technology they need. We’re trying to make sure that, at the very least, access is equitable,” Leslie said.

Junior Yuki Hoshi said she appreciated the school’s initiative in distributing Chromebooks to students, but that this system still had flaws.

“The school’s done a very good job of providing Chromebooks for students who need it, but Chromebooks have a spotty connection to WiFi. Obviously technology costs money, but I do think distributing Chromebooks was a good first step,” Hoshi said.

Progress has also come in intangible forms. According to Leslie, teachers are attempting to be more understanding of the systemic inequities that impact students.

“We’re also trying to make sure that teachers are aware of the inequalities that existed last spring and continue to exist. We’re making teachers hyper aware of certain communities of students for whom remote learning is just extra hard, so teachers don’t give up when a student doesn’t immediately email them back,” Leslie said. “If a student messes up and doesn’t submit an assignment or two, or misses a class or two, we teachers should remember that there could be a lot of reasons for that.”

Looking forward

In a Canvas survey, several anonymous students said that efforts to combat racism should be centered around the elementary and middle schools.

In particular, one student said that their elementary school teacher threatened to call child services when a girl of color was caught sleeping in class. However, their white classmates faced no repercussions for throwing objects in class and talking out of turn.

“Most of the kids of color from my elementary school came from housing and had a rough time in school. Teachers didn’t seem to have any sympathy and were always annoyed at them for misbehaving,” the student wrote. “It could be really terrible for a child’s self-esteem to be treated as lesser, or as someone who is always in the wrong.”

Mims said that, moving forward, the district should use parents as valuable allies in the battle against discrimination in the classroom, even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“There still is a lot of work to be done. If you go to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website and you look at MCAS scores and SAT scores, you still see too many gaps there,” Mims said. “I think what needs to be done at Brookline is enlisting the parents as allies. I always look at excellent education as involving three major stakeholder groups: the students, the parents and the educators.”

According to Cawthorne, the district should prioritize the needs of their most vulnerable students when making decisions.

“We should start by ensuring that all of our most vulnerable students are okay. If conditions are alright for them, then it’s fair to say that every other kid will be okay,” Cawthorne said. “What that’s meant for me is making sure that, for METCO, I or someone else who represents METCO is included.”

Mims said that it is worth acknowledging the progress Brookline has already made in establishing racial equity in education.

“I think everyone is working hard in Brookline, and I think you are trying to deal with so many issues with the pandemic piled on top of all the other challenges,” Mims said. “We all know these are very complicated times, and there is still a lot of work to be done. But I believe that educators in the community are doing the right things and solving these problems.”

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