Posted on May 15, 2020

Distance Learning During Coronavirus Worsens Race, Class Inequality in Education

Nidia Bautista, Teen Vogue, May 1, 2020

Abruptly shifting much of the U.S. education system online in the middle of a pandemic was never going to be easy. But for students of color at some of the country’s largest school districts, the practical, technical, and emotional challenges are far more acute. Their lack of reliable internet access and technology is only the tip of the iceberg.

Students told Teen Vogue they’re growing anxious as relatives are laid off and bills mount. Mixed-status families are being left out of relief packages. Children of essential workers are taking on responsibilities at home that prevent them from engaging in online classes. All of the historic inequities in education access that students of color already faced are compounded by a pandemic that is particularly devastating for black and Latinx communities.

In Los Angeles, where just a year ago students and teachers organized a strike in the country’s second largest school district, students are calling on the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) to reconfigure its approach to the pandemic by demanding structural support for students and their families. Students in Chicago and New York City are echoing calls for mental health, housing, and health resources.

For many students, concerns over family and community wellness come before school. South L.A. high schooler Amee Meza, 17, found out they got into UC Berkeley two weeks into LAUSD’s transition into distance learning. Group chats with admitted students and alumni are helping Amee, who will be a first-generation college student, stay excited about a new chapter. But with their family facing reduced work hours, they’re considering taking a job — “prioritizing life instead of school.”

Amee is a leader in Students Deserve, a Los Angeles coalition of students, teachers, and parents demanding more resources and support during a pandemic that has so far affected more than 10,000 residents of Los Angeles County. Students Deserve is asking for the cancellation of rent and evictions, the implementation of permanent mental health experts at schools, including grief counselors, immediate housing and health care, and the release of incarcerated loved ones.


Many students whose parents are low-income essential workers say they’re having trouble focusing on schoolwork. Isabella Ramirez, 16, who is also part of Students Deserve, said adapting to online classes is difficult as a visual learner who now has limited guidance from teachers. Isabella also cares for her 90-year-old grandmother, who struggles with dementia, while her mom works at a local grocery store, a job she started a few months ago to help make ends meet. Like many of her peers, she is juggling schoolwork, chores, and caregiving. “I feel that not only is that mentally hard but also physically hard for students because you are essentially a teacher, a parent, and a sibling,” she said.

“Distance learning is a challenge for all students,” said Lawrence (Torry) Winncodirector of the Transformative Justice in Education Center at UC Davis, “but students of color have been harmed the most by past and current racial inequities in our schools. Inequities existed before COVID-19.” Winn said the pandemic will impact students of color the most.


Linda Yu, an 11th grader at New York City’s High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, said she spends hours online trying to complete assignments and keep up with instruction on Google Classroom. Teachers have shifted their classes between multiple online platforms, and it’s caused a lot of confusion. With SAT retake exams also canceled, Linda’s junior year has been thrown for a loop.

Conversations at home revolve around New York City coronavirus news, the fear of violence against the city’s Asian community, and pending bill payments. Linda and her twin sister manage the bills for their parents. Her mother hasn’t worked in weeks, and she said her dad is currently stuck in Guangdong, China, after traveling there to manage some farmland the family owns.

“It’s hard because we’re the ones who manage all the bills because they can’t really speak English as well as us. It’s like, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen? Our bills are going to be late — how am I supposed to get this fixed’?” Linda said her school should relax its expectations of students. “I think we all need a break. There’s a lot of added stress because we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future.”

In Los Angeles, Students Deserve has called for “universal passage” (meaning all students would automatically pass all their classes), and last week LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner announced that no student would receive a failing grade on their spring report card. {snip}


In an attempt to bridge the digital divide, LAUSD has partnered with Verizon to connect all students to the internet and is working with Amazon to improve online conferencing capabilities. South Central science teacher Michelle Suarez said she’s using platforms like Schoology, Snapchat, and Instagram to invite students to her Zoom office hours. {snip}