Keeping Up In The Classroom

Pandemic Shines Light on Digital Divide for Bay Area Students

While some students can succeed from home, others are struggling to get the resources they need to keep up

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Among the host of problems that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to Bay Area families, it has particularly highlighted the widening digital divide when it comes to education.

In Silicon Valley, just a few miles can separate the students who have the tools they need to learn at home from the students who are struggling to keep up with limited resources.

“We talk a lot about achievement gaps, but what we really need to be talking about is opportunity gaps,” Heather Lattimer, dean of the College of Education at San Jose State University, said.

At St. Simon Parish School, a private school in Los Altos, Principal Ryan Roth said while lessons this school year will be virtual, students will still have access to all of their typical subjects, including math, science, English language arts, music, art and foreign language.

“We’re trying to closely adhere to a traditional school day schedule,” Roth said.

Meanwhile, just 15 minutes away in the Mayfair neighborhood of San Jose, the Mata family is admittedly struggling with distance learning. They can’t afford the private school option for more learning hours or better resources.

Rocio Ramos said distance learning has been very difficult and stressful because the family has poor internet connection, one computer for four people and a small house with limited space for everyone to study and work.

Rocio’s son Anthony said getting help with schoolwork is nearly impossible because no one is home. Both of his parents have to leave for work.

“It’s really hard to pay attention because you’re on the computer so the teachers don’t have to tell you keep on listening,” he said. “So it’s very easy to get distracted.”

Rocio’s daughter Katheryn struggled with her studies this past year at Independence High School because the family had to share the one computer. She said the high school did offer Chromebooks, but she didn’t have a ride to bring one home. 

A national poll by consulting firm Deloitte found widespread anxiety as students prepare for an uncertain return to class. Chris Chmura reports.

For Katheryn, getting a proper education has to be done in person at school.

“At school, they have the materials that we need,” she said.

Back in Los Altos, St. Simon Parish School’s website boasts strong academics and compelling extracurricular and sports programs, among several other key attributes, including what Roth explained is significant involvement from parents.

“I think it goes down to incorporating the parent voice into the decision making process to support the students,” he said.

Roth said the school also sends home surveys, invites families to town hall meetings and hosts parent information nights — something very different from what the Mata children described as very limited communication from their teachers with students and parents, making distance learning even more difficult.

Katheryn, who is starting community college in the fall, said she’s barely heard directly from her school.

“I’m like very, very new to everything, and I feel like it would have been easier going to the school, talking in person with a counselor and setting up classes,” she said. "It's been really hard setting up classes."

"Uncertain." That's the word that kept coming up when NBC Bay Area spoke with parents, principals, teachers, public health experts, and others in recent weeks, discussing the upcoming 2020-2021 school year.

Lattimer argues inequities in education have always been around, but the pandemic has made them worse and distance learning has created a deep digital divide.

“We know that we need to invest in the infrastructure and we need to be able to get kids and families back into class,” she said.

While schools and districts across California grapple with virtual education, Rocio just wishes she could have seen her daughter walk in a high school graduation ceremony after struggling so much with finishing up the school year from home.

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