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COVID-19 crisis creates distance-learning gap for Los Angeles County students

When schools moved from classrooms to home computers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a learning gap immediately opened, according to an analysis by Hernan Galperin, associate professor of communication at USC Annenberg.

Stay-at-home mandates to minimize spread of the coronavirus have forced 1.5 million K-12 students in Los Angeles County to online classes. Galperin and his team examined household availability of two key components of distance learning: a residential internet connection and a desktop or laptop computer.

The research showed one in four K-12 households in L.A. County lack those resources. The problem worsens among Los Angeles Unified School District students, as one in three live in households without high-speed internet or a computer.

“The closure of school campuses is laying bare the disparities in household resources for effective distance learning,” Galperin said. “Without aggressive initiatives from schools and local or state governments, low-income and minority students will fall further behind as a result of COVID-19.”

Galperin and his fellow researchers have spent several years investigating the “digital divide” in L.A. County: Throughout the county, less-affluent neighborhoods tend to have lower access to high-speed internet service and the devices that connect to that service.

“We already had done a lot of the background work to tackle this issue,” Galperin said. “As soon as the COVID-19 crisis hit, we knew that this was going to expose the inequities that we have been documenting for years. We started thinking about the areas where this gap was going to be most apparent, and K-12 education was one of the most glaring.”

According to the team’s policy brief on the education gap, published on April 19, only about half of the K-12 families in the bottom fifth of income distribution are prepared for distance learning. That compares to 90% preparedness for families in the top fifth.

“We see large gaps in terms of who can effectively communicate with teachers, join a Zoom class and take advantage of other online resources,” Galperin said. “Without that basic infrastructure, online learning is simply impossible.”

Households lacking distance learning resources are clustered in South and East L.A. In these communities, less than half of families have the necessary technology resources for distance learning.

“When we started mapping the disparities in L.A., you can clearly see the classic historical patterns emerging,” Galperin said. “South and East L.A. are the most deprived areas, where you have households with fewer resources.”

Regardless of income, students of color are less likely to have the technology resources for distance learning. For example, the gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students at the same income level is as high as 20 percentage points. The reason is likely because minority students, regardless of income, tend to live in communities with underfunded schools and less advanced broadband infrastructure.

While the distance learning gap presents enormous challenges for students, families and educators throughout L.A. County, Galperin acknowledged that many public and private entities have been working hard to increase access for underserved communities. Some schools have been distributing laptops to students who need them, while telecom companies have been providing mobile hotspots and free service to families who need to be connected.

“But the logistics are very, very complicated,” Galperin acknowledged. “School districts have been scrambling to understand the scale of the problem, even as they are trying to solve it. There was always what was known as a ‘homework gap,’ where kids from homes with better connectivity had an advantage in normal times. But, with this crisis, internet access is front-and-center as the most pressing issue facing K-12 education.”

The full policy brief is available here. An interactive map detailing the distance-learning gap in L.A. County is available here.