Low-income students will be left behind again, groups warn

Advocates not reassured by school district’s efforts to bridge digital divide

bus bus bus
(WiFi hotspot. CCSD photo)

Low-income communities along with Black and brown students are most at risk of falling behind as the Clark County School District moves education online in the new school year, and advocacy groups worry measures to reach those households are bound to fall short.

With cases of Covid-19 surging in Nevada, the School Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to implement distance education learning to ensure the safety of students and teachers. 

There are still many unanswered questions and concerns about what the move will mean for the poorest households in Clark County, including how they will obtain internet access or digital equipment to participate in lessons.

“What we’ve been told by CCSD is a third of CCSD students either have no or very limited connectivity and they will be excluded from school,” said Yvette Williams, founder and chair of the Clark County Black Caucus. “So that’s America in 2020. Those who have resources get to go to school and those who have not don’t get to go to school. It’s that simple. We can try to justify this any way we want to so we can all live with it and make it OK.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, the district estimated 40 percent of households might need to provided access to the internet and/or devices before school starts.

Federal relief funds will finance purchase of Chromebooks, but the coronavirus has disrupted supply chains for technical products. Officials say they are working to ensure the neediest students are given priority. 

In coming days the district is supposed to release a “parent/student guide” designed to “provide information on how teachers will communicate with students, and how parents can get access to resources and technology to support students during distance education.”

Bianca Balderas, a political organizer with Make the Road Nevada, said distance education is the best option for students and teachers in the pandemic, but the organization still has concerns.

“We need to be making distance education a priority at this time and for the foreseeable future, since we don’t know when this pandemic will end,” she said. “For low-income families, there will be many more barriers to obtain quality education. The digital divide means families won’t have internet or the technologies to start distance learning.”

“Low-income, working families will not have the luxury of working from home, and older siblings will be required to babysit and teach younger siblings while getting their own education,” Balderas said.

Tiffany Tyler-Garner, the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, added that though the school district is attempting to address and fill the gaps, the move online could “disproportionately impact the learning outcomes.”

The digital divide among students isn’t new. 

In April the Kenny Guinn Center for Public Priorities release a report of the digital divide in Nevada from previous year’s data that showed of the 189,000 households in Clark County with children aged six to 17:

  • 17 percent didn’t have a computer 
  • 11 percent lacked internet access 
  • 6 percent used a smartphone as their sole computing device 
  • 4 percent had no computing device
  • About 8 percent had a computing device but no internet. 

In the spring when the district was trying to do distance learning, Superintendent Jesus Jara said a third of the district’s 320,000 students would be unable to access an online classroom from their homes.

Nevada ranks in the bottom half of states when it comes to internet coverage, speed and price, according to a report by BroadbandNow Research.

Did we learn anything in the spring?

“The end of last semester was a total mess, there’s no simple way to say it,” Balderas said. “They were not able to provide students with what they needed in a timely manner. I know it was all very fast. But now it’s been months and they were able to plan. We do have more expectations. Students are already behind in their education. They lost part of the year at the end of the semester. If they don’t have their things together before school starts, they are going to be behind more.”

Months later, the district is still scrambling to address connectivity issues.

“We are encouraged to see CCSD is planning to wire school buses with Wi-Fi but we still don’t believe that will enable them to ensure access for all students in the district,” Tyler-Garner said.

In addition to the limited availability of the bus Wi-Fi, students have to be in proximity to the bus.

The district is also touting a promise from Cox Communications to offer discounts to “qualifying families,” though it’s far from clear how many households might qualify.

Tyler-Garner wants to hear more about the collaboration the district is undertaking such as if it’s partnering with the library district or other organizations to provide hours for students. “So we can ensure access to the internet in cool places so they aren’t just sitting on a bus,” she added.

But there are too many uncertainties, which is why Williams said the district should do what many districts nationwide are doing, and delay the start of the school year until all students have equal access to learning.

If the school year starts and some students are unable to access school, Williams said the school district is opening itself up to potential lawsuits for denying a uniform education as obligated under the state constitution.

Even if and when students receive Chromebooks and internet access, the problems aren’t over. 

“We are concerned about a number of special populations that are represented among CCSD students including students with special needs and disabilities as well as the foster youth,” Tyler-Garner said. “We are also concerned about the impact to mandated reporting. We’ve seen decreases in the number of cases of abuse being reported just like we saw in domestic violence. That decrease isn’t necessarily abuse declining but maybe children aren’t on campus, present with adults who could identify or see signs and indicators and can refer resources.”

While school board trustees brought up similar concerns about students with special needs, Tuesday’s discussion didn’t offer any specific solutions 

It’s about more than school

Potential issues students will face will go far beyond internet and technology access for low-income students, and even far beyond the policies the school district can control. 

“There has been some discussion around equity and what that means during times like these, but I hope the discussion looks at housing instability, food insecurity and lack of health care,” Tyler-Garner said.

Covid-19 laid bare multiple flaws in public policies and systems, such as the lack of affordable child care and inability to build affordable units to contend with a historic housing crisis or enact wide-sweeping tenant protections. While elected-officials have long-acknowledged these statewide problems, there hasn’t been substantial legislation to fix it. 

Now, many argue students are going to be further hurt during the health crisis. 

A wealth of research has linked education outcomes to housing stability. 

“We knew before Covid transiency had a significant impact on education and learning outcomes for students,” Tyler-Garner said. “We were already talking about the impact of cycling in and out of weeklies, or affordability issues that place students in transition throughout the school year. That would likely be exacerbated with the lifting of the eviction moratorium and the fact a disproportionate number of families have not only lost jobs or are behind on a mortgage or rent.”

The eviction moratorium is scheduled to end Sept. 1, days after the start of the school year.

While rentals assistance programs have started, state officials estimate the need will far outpace the money allocated to those programs, which means families could be left scrambling.

Child care access, another area Nevada has lacked in, is another “significant concern with the reopening” Tyler-Garner added. Again, elected-officials at the state and local level have struggled to fund solutions. 

A 2019 report from the Children’s Advocacy Alliance and the Nevada Institute For Children’s Research And Policy noted the average annual cost of child care in licensed centers in Nevada ranges from $11,137 for an infant to $8,835 for preschoolers.

The lack of child care is expected to impact families and teachers with children alike.

“If (school) is all online, who is there to supervise the home in low-income families where you do have to work and may not be able to afford care,” she said. “If we did get to a place where there are a certain number of days on campus and a certain number of days off campus, who is providing that care? How can they afford it?”

Those affordability and household income questions have been posed nationwide, whether in school boards, in Congress, or around kitchen tables. No answer has been presented. 

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.