When K-12 classes went remote earlier this spring, experts warned that the impact would be most felt by those who were already being failed by our educational system, in particular Black and Latinx students as well as those living in more rural districts. In June, the New York Times predicted that “the average student could fall seven months behind academically, while black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses, equivalent to 10 months for black children and nine months for Latinos.” As the covid-19 pandemic has continued into the fall, the disparities, which track along already existing fault lines, have become starker, especially when it comes to which students have the option of learning in-person and which do not.
Researchers have found that Black, Latinx, and Asian American students are more likely to attend all-virtual classes than white students; one recent survey found that seven out of ten Black students and six out of ten Latinx students are attending all-remote classes, while only four out of ten white students are doing the same. An analysis by the Associated Press and Chalkbeat before the start of the school year this fall echoed those findings, reporting that “[d]istricts where the vast majority of students are white are more than three times as likely as school districts that enroll mostly students of color to be open for some in-person learning.”
The impact on student learning has been, unsurprisingly, unequal. As NBC News noted, according to a series of studies that tracked student’s progress in reading and in math, “Black, Hispanic and Native American students, as well as rural students and those who attend schools that serve high-poverty populations, lost more ground than students with more advantages.”
But some families are now fighting back and demanding more for their children. In California, a group made up of seven parents as well as community organizations is suing the state of California, charging that, as the Los Angeles Times put it, the state “has failed during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide a free and equal education to all students, violating the state Constitution and discriminating against Black, Latino and low-income families” as it moved towards distance learning.
The Washington Post described some of the impacts of remote learning on the families involved in the lawsuit:
The plaintiffs include a cohort of low-income families of color who in the lawsuit shared their struggles with bare-bones remote education. Eight-year-old twins from Oakland were getting just 45 minutes of live instruction a day and 30 minutes of group time with classmates but are otherwise on their own. Last spring, after schools closed, their teacher held class only twice before the school year ended, according to the lawsuit.
A 5-year-old girl and her 8-year-old sister living in south Los Angeles were given broken laptops last school year and were forced to learn through their parents’ phones. Another family from Los Angeles had three children sharing one WiFi hotspot that frequently cut out, hampering their attempts to learn anything.
One of the parents involved in the lawsuit, Angela J., spoke with the Los Angeles Times and shared the challenges she and her three children have experienced since March, when schools closed to in-person classes:
[She] said that her twins, who were in the second grade last year, received live instruction with a teacher only twice from the time when schools closed in mid-March to the end of the school year. The students weren’t assigned packets or other materials to make up for the lost time.
“The teacher totally dropped the ball,” Angela J. said in an interview. (The lawsuit named the parent and student plaintiffs with pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)
When she finally reached the teacher after repeated phone calls and messages, the teacher said that because some students weren’t able to get online for remote learning, she had canceled classes for all students.
Angela J.’s children struggled to learn place values and multiplication, and their difficulties have persisted into the fall. Now in the third grade, they receive only 75 minutes of live instruction daily — well below the 230 instructional minutes required for students in grade 1 through 3 during the pandemic — and are left on their own to complete work off a checklist. The teacher has not provided any supplies or materials, according to the complaint.
“There’s no schedule, no structure — it’s loosey-goosey,” Angela J. said. “I don’t think it’s effective.”
In the lawsuit, parents like Angela J. are asking for what seems like the bare minimum they should get—access to the technology they and their children need for adequate remote learning, improved remote instruction, more academic and mental health support services, and more parent participation in planning. Critically, they are also demanding additional support for students who have fallen behind once in-person classes start up again.
“When remote learning ends and when students go back to school, they’re not going to be on the trajectory that they were before. They’re going to be really behind,” Jesselyn Friley, one of the attorneys for the families, told the Los Angeles Times. “There will need to be a huge effort to get those kids back on track and make sure that not only do we go back to ‘normal,’ but that the damage that’s been done by this period is undone.”