An Op-ed by Ta’Mara Hill, a Master of Human Rights and Master of Public Health Candidate at the University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs and School of Public Health. 

This piece is part of our Student Contributions series. Find out how to contribute here. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.

Like many other aspects of daily life, primary and secondary education (referred to as K-12 in the U.S.) has had a massive overhaul since the outbreak of COVID-19. Currently, 90% of the world’s schoolchildren are not being educated in a formal classroom. The aim of the Futures Project is to identify the most pressing challenges of tomorrow and help create context-specific solutions for global citizens, focusing specifically on the UN’s 2030 Agenda. To envision the future we want to see, global discussion must turn to the relevance and importance of technological inequality. Highlighting the status of K-12 education in the U.S. the unrelenting impacts of COVID-19 are obvious, even within an economically developed nation. COVID-19 will continue to change various sectors of daily life, on a global scale. Refusing to adapt to these changes will continue to greatly impact the most vulnerable and deepen existing inequalities.

In the United States, this nationwide education shutdown is unprecedented; even greater in scale than school closures during the 1918 Spanish Flu. While the switch to what is now being referred to as “crisis schooling” is a jarring change for all families across the US, it is a hurdle that not all kids and their caregivers can get through with ease. Many schools (especially private ones) have the resources to transition from physical classrooms to online ones. Some students have reliable access to Wi-Fi, digital devices, private tutors, and/or caregivers who can help them understand their curriculum. Yet, many children are still struggling to eat without their daily school lunch.

As we wade through these uncharted waters in search of a new normal, health disparities are not the only inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19. Education disparities are being impacted as well and the crisis is worsening the education gap between races and income levels. The 2019-2020 academic school year has come to an end across the country, and the progress that we have made in decreasing Achievement Gaps over the past two decades is in danger of plateauing. While holistic data has yet to be compiled for the nation, it is estimated that 11% of schoolchildren are in households where they are not receiving education of any kind. That is over 6.2 million American children who will be unprepared to perform on grade level next school year. These fears are being recognized by parents as well, with 42% of all parents (52% of nonwhite parents) worried that the pandemic is having a negative impact on their child’s education.

This barrier to education is being felt around the world, as around 826 million schoolchildren do not have access to a home computer and 706 million have no internet service. Technological disparities are more severe in developing countries, with almost 90% of Sub-Saharan African schoolchildren left without home computers, and 82% left without Wi-Fi.

Students with at least one parent who is not an essential worker, who can work from home, who speaks English, and/or has a high school diploma and/or a college degree are at an extreme advantage in the age of COVID-19. During this time, students from low-income backgrounds and single parent/guardian households do not have access to additional at-home support or technology.

Technology and Wi-Fi access is no longer just about being able to play computer games and watch funny videos. Honestly, technology has been a necessity for modern K-12 education for some time. But previously, schools were using a combination of online and in-class instruction while expecting students to use tech resources available in school or public libraries. This has allowed us to justify the treatment of technology as a luxury and not a necessity. In a pandemic, it is becoming harder and harder to deny the important role technology and the internet play in education.

196 countries around the world have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). That means 196 countries have promised to prioritize the availability of education to children, through “equal opportunity”. In the U.S., every single child is guaranteed an “equal educational opportunity no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or non-citizen”. But because of technological disparities, we have an abundance of students, globally, who can no longer access their education. It is time that access to technology be viewed not as an indulgence, but as a human right.

Our lack of a preemptive education policy plan during COVID-19 is making an entire generation of Americans undereducated and underprepared. Maybe worse, we are not crafting any education policies with the intent of mediating the impacts of our current failure. There has been a perfunctory response from the U.S. Department of Education with their only move being to issue nation-wide waivers from federal testing requirements, as long as we are in a national state of emergency.

However, other countries have taken measures to ensure that the quality of education during the pandemic is consistent and students are able to continue learning.

For example, New Zealand:

  1. Is connecting many low-income homes to internet and giving students computers
  2. Is printing out and delivering packets of learning materials to homes without computers or internet
  3. Has created an advice website for distance learning
  4. Is running educational television programming for six hours a day, in the two most widely spoken languages in the country.

Around the world, students are about to get left behind in a detrimental way. And while much of our global discussion has been focused on the economy, we need to be reminded that a well-educated workforce is an essential key to economic success. Country-wide there is a positive correlation between having a well-educated workforce and high wages. In addition, states with more educated populations have higher levels of workplace productivity. Economic prosperity and societal wealth are intrinsically linked to productivity.

While most of us generally know that a worker can expect higher wages for higher education, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture; “productivity rises with investments in infrastructure and workers”. As such, investing in education is a vital contribution our government can make to solidify economic prosperity in our country. While around the world, education has been proven to aid in a country’s economic stability, poverty levels, health of citizens, and overall development. Education increases access, and access leads to a world we can all take part in.

In America, choosing to sweep the systemic issues of K-12 education under the rug until we stabilize the economy is not only a poor national policy decision – it is unconstitutional and punishes children, a population who should not be expected to advocate for themselves. Putting children’s education first should not be a controversial subject, nor up for policy discussion. As global citizens, we promised our children a quality and equal education. We need to stand up and give them what we owe them.

In the landmark 1954, Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court solidified:

“The right to an equal educational opportunity is one of the most valuable rights you have”.

In the middle of a major shift in our way of life, we would be wise not to forget that.