Ivanka Brutus, a fifth-grade student in a Black and low-income county in Miami, Fla., struggled to complete her coursework when school moved online. Her Internet connection is extremely spotty—the beginning of Tropical Storm Arthur brought flood levels to the county that haven’t been seen in 20 years. And as hurricane season continues, it’s only expected to get worse. “I have experienced many tough things while learning online,” Brutus told The Nation. “I still don’t have access to my own computer, and our power can cut off at any time.”
Brutus is one of thousands of low-income students of color who struggled to keep up with coursework during the pandemic because of a host of financial and structural barriers. In addition to dealing with an increased health risk and lack of governmental financial aid, these students are also more likely to live in overcrowded or unstable housing, lack access to reliable food that they may have otherwise received at school, and face other obstacles in the way of a fulfilling virtual learning experience.
In anticipation of virtual learning continuing this fall and possibly well into next year, the ACLU is calling on Congress to address inequities among low-income students, students of color, disabled students, and others whose needs are not being addressed through current remote learning strategies. On May 14, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to Congress demanding that it provide several billion dollars in funding toward equal remote learning access and privacy protections for K-12 students as part of the phase 4 Covid-19 relief package.
According to Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel Chad Marlow, the ACLU is proposing several strategies to ensure that all students’ needs are met in distance learning. Representatives from the ACLU argue that students should be provided with hardware such as a laptop or tablet to complete their online coursework if they do not own one, should be able to freely access software such as online applications or programming needed for school, and should have reliable Internet access at home.
“We want to make the schools understand what their obligations are in terms of providing equal access to remote education,” Marlow said. “Students are required under law to provide accommodations to disabled students, poor students, undocumented students, and other students who might have specific needs in this moment, and we want to make sure that everybody’s needs are met.”
In its letter to Congress and in letters to state and local leaders from over 25 state chapters, the ACLU is urging members to provide $2–3 billion per month for the duration of the crisis, and at least 30 days after the crisis ends, which would go toward an emergency benefit to make broadband services available to all eligible low-income households. To help students further, the organization is calling on Congress to provide $4 billion for an Emergency Connectivity Fund, proposed by Representative Grace Meng and Senator Ed Markey, to cover immediate assistance for students and library patrons who need access to technology to engage in remote learning in their homes.
The ACLU argues these measures are necessary to address the digital divide that the pivot to online education has exposed: Poor and rural students across the country are struggling to complete coursework because of lack of technology or Internet access. According to 2019 data from the Pew Research Center, only 63 percent of people living in rural America have a broadband Internet connection at home and 46 percent of people living on less than $30,000 a year do not own a computer.
Online learning has understandably been devastating for these communities, and governmental and school-specific responses have often been inadequate. A school district in Philadelphia advised students without a proper Internet connection to study in parking lots to access free Wifi. Students deprived of Internet service in rural Alaska have been forced to study at McDonalds. While federal funding has been set aside for K-12 education through the CARES Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, this funding has not provided comprehensive care to the nation’s most vulnerable students.
“My personal laptop tends to freeze and disconnect from the Internet, and my school laptop is worse,” said Angela Muralles, an 11th grader at James Monroe High School in North Hills, Calif. “During my AP English language exam, my computer disconnected from the Internet around five times while my time kept counting down. I also live in a home of eight, and our Internet connection isn’t the best. When someone among us has a test, my siblings and I take turns disconnecting from our Zoom classes in order to avoid any technical difficulties. The four of us feel powerless when it comes to this form of education.”
Muralles is one of many students struggling to complete standardized testing remotely. Recent AP exams administered online in May caused glitches and technical difficulties for many students, and about 1 percent of students were not able to submit their test, according to the College Board. While some schools such as UC Berkeley have dropped standardized testing requirements in light of the pandemic, most colleges continue to require these tests as part of admissions. As both the SAT and ACT are currently planning to potentially move online this summer, the consequences of students’ facing barriers to complete this standardized testing could be formidable.
In addition to Internet and technology concerns, the ACLU’s letter to Congress addressed the need to protect student’s privacy during online learning. Many have expressed concerns over the surveillance tactics that third-party video applications such as Blackboard and Zoom have employed on users. Zoom in particular has been criticized for privacy violations, including allowing outside websites to join a call without the user’s consent and allowing the host of a call, usually a teacher, to track whether other participants have separate browsers open. In the context of virtual learning, this means that students are often surveilled without consent.
“In the rush to roll out these technologies, there was very little attention paid to protecting student privacy, which is a major problem,” Marlow said. “Data collection from these third-party applications could have serious implications for students down the line in a number of ways. Students could end up not being able to get home loans, not get into the colleges they apply to, or worse.”
According to Marlow, certain data such as a student’s name, date of birth, and submitted homework assignments are being uniformly collected by third-party providers. Some providers, like Zoom, allow even more access, as hosts are able to capture the screen of a student or remotely turn on microphones or webcams. Different providers have various regulations surrounding what information is collected, how long they retain the information, and whom they share it with. While providers often boast that users’ information is safe and not to be sold, recent discoveries have indicated that this might not always be the case, meaning a student can potentially put personal information at risk every time they log on for class.
“Let’s say a student checks a box saying they would prefer to have their provider in Spanish rather than in English,” Marlow said. “ICE would be very interested in learning more about this student, and if they or someone in their family is undocumented, they have now been put in an immediate, tangible, and truly problematic risk. The ways that private data is collected on students can be used to disadvantage them later in life, and no student should be exposed to risk because they want to learn during a public health crisis.”
Many students are unaware of the risk that these third-party platforms expose them to and are unable to give real consent to being surveilled—still, platforms like Zoom are required for most virtual learning. Students as young as preschool age are in online classrooms during the pandemic. “I am afraid sometimes because apparently people can hack into Zoom and look at us,” Brutus, the fifth-grader, said. “It’s very scary because we are all only kids and our faces are exposed.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated recently that most students can expect a mix of in-person and online classes in the fall. New York and Virginia are creating contingency plans for an online school year, once more necessitating that funds be found for adequate technology and that proper privacy restrictions be put in place. While some, including many parents, are looking forward to in-person classes so that they no longer are forced to juggle full-time child care with work, others view this shift to remote education as good news. One in five teachers reported being unlikely to return to campus if schools were to reopen in the fall, according to USA Today.
Linda Jordan, a math teacher at a public high school in Georgia, told The Nation that online learning has been beneficial for many of her students. “Every school handled remote learning differently, but we elected to stop holding formal classes and instead just gave the students assignments that they could complete on their own,” Jordan said. “If students had a question we could schedule time for a one-on-one call, so they would get more personal attention. Online learning also helped with a lot of behavioral issues, and things like bullying went down as well. My view is that we should be moving more virtual in the future.”
Jordan continued that her school provided every student a Chromebook before the pandemic began, and noted that many low-income students at the school were able to get free WiFi through a program that Xfinity offered. Marlow argues that this furthers the ACLU’s assertion that students can excel in online learning if provided the proper tools.
“Education in this country is a right, not a privilege,” he said. “We have a duty to provide students with a proper education to the best of our ability, even during a pandemic.… There are resources available, and where the resources are not adequate, we need to come up with more.”