With COVID-19 cases surging and medical evidence showing children may be susceptible to the virus, some parents are facing a tough decision about whether to physically send their children back to school or to opt for distance learning. While this is a difficult decision for every parent, it may be especially difficult for those with lower incomes.

For those already on a tight budget, the cost of technology—such as computers and internet service—can be unaffordable, not to mention that many parents in low-income households are classified as essential workers and lack the ability to work from home. Though essential jobs have been vital to keeping our communities operating during COVID-19, employees in these jobs are often paid at or near the minimum wage, and they rarely have the freedom to work from home or take paid time off. Alternatively, higher income parents—many of whom do have the freedom to work from home—are often given the opportunity to monitor their children’s progress at school.

Ensuring the academic success of all students, regardless of income, is important now more than ever. Over the past few decades, schools and educators have sought to close the achievement gap that has emerged between low- and high-income students by ensuring each student has the tools, resources, and support to strive towards academic success. However, in the wake of COVID-19, schools and educators are now looking for ways to ensure that students from low-income households have the ability to survive.

Indeed, one of the first large-scale government responses in schools—Pandemic-EBT—was aimed at making sure low-income students didn’t go hungry during the pandemic, as the majority of these students’ meals are eaten at school for free.

Given the inequities in tools, resources, and support, as well as the inequities in parents’ working conditions, it is unsurprising that COVID-19 threatens to widen the already large achievement gap between low- and high-income students. As the achievement gap tends to grow over students’ life course, COVID-19 may significantly alter the educational trajectories of students from low-income households.

A recent survey conducted by the Social Policy Institute (SPI) at Washington University in St. Louis between April 27 and May 12 revealed a variety of inequities that have the potential to negatively impact a child’s ability to strive towards academic success and by doing so, further widen the achievement gap.

In comparing the responses of 1,110 parents, SPI found the following inequities:

  • 49% of low- and moderate-income households reported that their children spent 10 hours or less on school-sponsored activities compared to only 37% of middle- and high-income households.
  • Twice the amount of low- and moderate-income households (8%) reported having inadequate space for learning at home when compared to middle and high income households (4%).
  • Over twice the number of parents without bachelor’s degrees thought their children would not be prepared for the following school year (13%) when compared to parents with bachelor’s degrees (6%).
  • 15% of Black parents reported that their children attended a school without a distance learning plan, compared to only 10% of white parents.
  • For schools that did offer distance learning, only 72% of Black parents reported that their child’s school offered the necessary distance learning tools—compared to 80% of white parents.

Moreover, schools in low-income neighborhoods are often under-resourced and may experience additional shortfalls in funding due to COVID-19-related revenue declines. When considering the additional costs associated with school safety measures, this shortfall could put students and teachers at lower-resourced schools at greater risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19.

The federal government should make additional investments in lower-resourced schools to ensure that they are able to meet all safety guidelines. Additional investments should also be made to provide parents with the resources for their children to learn from home. These resources include online learning tools, subsidies for high-speed internet, and one-on-one support with school instructional and support staff. If we do not act now, the achievement gap will continue to grow to the point that students from less advantaged backgrounds will be unable to regain the ground they lost during the pandemic.

Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their children’s’ health and their academic success—between surviving and thriving. While the choice to attend school in-person or virtually may ultimately be up to parents in some cases, we should ensure that both options allow for academic success—especially for the most vulnerable learners.

Michal Grinstein-Weiss is director and Jason Jabbari is data analyst III at the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis.

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