What does back-to-school look like for you?

For many parents and students, back-to-school season means shopping for new tablets, clothes, and sports gear. Amid changing guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this reality can vary significantly for different students—low-income families are the most likely to see their education disrupted by changes to classroom schedules.

Disparities in education have been a hot topic since the pandemic first closed schools in the spring of 2020. The looming uncertainty about the upcoming school year has parents, students, and educators alike concerned that students who can't afford the resources required for remote learning can slip through the cracks. To that end, let's explore the three central talking points in discussions about student equity: the problem, the students affected, and what you can do to help. 

The Problem

As any parent who had to help their children navigate the transition to Zoom classrooms can tell you, remote learning is a lot of work. Although the portable nature of smart devices means students can theoretically learn anywhere, maintaining a remote learning schedule is hard work. In addition to smart devices, students also need designated study spaces to learn effectively, and the isolated nature of remote learning can also mean struggling students don't have the same teacher access when they need help.

When you compound all of these factors, it's easy to see how already disadvantaged students can face an increasingly uphill path to graduation. NPR/Ipsos polling has found around 20% of parents lack confidence in their school's transition to remote learning, with a roughly similar amount feeling their school didn't adequately communicate plans with parents. These numbers see a disproportionally high representation of low-income families, suggesting the pandemic is exaggerating gaps that were already present in the education system for urban youth.

It's not hard to see why: more than 1-in-4 students are reported to have inadequate internet access at home for remote learning, and this access often tracks to the ability to afford smart devices and internet services. With around 56 million students expected to return to school this year, a sobering amount still risk lapses in their education thanks to inequitable access.

Who's Affected?

A survey launched by the Department of Education earlier this year has found that almost half of students were learning remotely last spring, meaning any shifts in remote learning impact millions of students. When held next to reporting from last year that 4.4 million households with children didn't have consistent internet access, this number paints a concerning picture. 

The majority of these students are in households making less than $20,000 per year, with almost half living in households that make less than $10,000 per year. While lack of computer access extends into higher income brackets, these students are the most likely to see their graduation odds seriously impacted by it. By contrast, just 5% of students with no computer access live in households making $100,000 or more. 

While logistical problems posed by quick transitions to remote learning can affect any student, lower-income students are most likely to be negatively affected by it. These students are also more likely to be disadvantaged in other areas as well, spending longer amounts of time unsupervised and generally having access to fewer in-school academic resources. 

What Can You Do to Help? 

While many lower-income students are uniquely vulnerable to remote-learning shakeups, they're far from forgotten. Organizations across America have been rallying to assist students in a variety of ways, from providing smart devices to securing consistent internet access. Another focus in the push towards equitable education for vulnerable students has been outreach and mentoring, to ensure students can regain any traction lost during the pandemic. 

If you live in Denver, you've likely heard of Colorado Uplift, a local organization whose charter has been a valuable lifeline for vulnerable students during the pandemic. Colorado Uplift works with disadvantaged urban youth to ensure they stay on track to graduate and have the resources to pursue a college education after high school should they choose to do so. Their unique approach to mentoring focuses on matching students to full-time staff, which has proved to be an incredibly effective tool in keeping at-risk students engaged during disruptions posed by the transition to remote learning. 

If you're looking to get involved in bridging the educational divide, then organizations like Colorado Uplift offer an excellent opportunity to do so. Many have resources that offer a variety of ways to make a difference, from volunteering time and money to attending in-person community events. For example, Colorado Uplift has touched the lives of more than 3,500 urban students, and that number can increase even more with community help

The road to graduation isn't always even for all students, and remote learning disruptions likely won't be the only way that we see educational disparities stem from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you know of other organizations like Colorado Uplift that are making a difference for affected students? Sound off in the comments.