Who Gets Left Behind during Remote Learning?

This article is a part of an ongoing series that examines Equity During COVID-19 in early childhood and how this crisis impacts young children and families of color disproportionately in health, education, and geography across North Carolina. An introduction to the series can be found here.


On April 24, North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper announced that schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year, with remote learning continuing in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. As the reality sets in that some students in NC and across the country have not had access to formalized learning for over a month and will not for the foreseeable future, the inequities that children face because of the digital divide are exacerbated by a pandemic that has been particularly challenging for Black and Latino communities of color.

According to the 2017 data by the 5-year American Community Survey, 80 percent of North Carolinians live in a household with internet. Black, Latino, and Native American North Carolinians are more than ten percentage points less likely than Asian and white residents to live in a household with a broadband internet subscription. Inequitable access to remote learning is compounded for students living in geographically rural parts of the state with limited Wi-Fi access, students with learning differences who need one-on-one support, those completing schoolwork in small spaces shared with other family members (sometimes in a single room), and non-native English-speaking students.

UNC Wilmington’s Latino Alliance shares that the transition to online learning has proved challenging for Latino families living in poverty in NC. Many homes do not have access to tablets and computers for their young children to use, coupled with a lack of internet. Even when families get devices – for example, the Wake County school system is delivering computers to families who do not have them at home – there can still be challenges with proper setup, downloading course material, language barriers for non-English speaking parents, and connecting with teachers when there is no internet connection.

As families struggle with the broader economic and health implications of the coronavirus outbreak, some students and parents have dropped out of contact with schools, leading to higher chronic absenteeism (missing 10 percent of the academic year for any reason). Research demonstrates that as early as prekindergarten, children who are chronically absent are less likely to read proficiently by the end of third grade, more likely to be retained, and less likely to develop the social skills needed to persist in school. Prior to COVID-19, some districts in NC had a chronic absence rate as high as 23 percent with Native American children having the highest chronic absence rate at 21 percent followed by Multi-Racial children at 15 percent. State and local leaders are predicting numbers to be much higher this year in communities of color.  

To combat some of the barriers to accessing resources remotely:

  • North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI) created a platform for remote learning that is a space for collaboration between local schools and NC DPI for instructional resources, guides for parents, resources for connecting students to internet access, and more.
  • North Carolina is leading the nation on trying to reduce the “homework gap” (i.e. students are assigned homework requiring internet access to the internet, but don’t have home access) with immediate and long-term responses such as providing DPI with guidance and support on convenience contracts for cellular service, tablets, hot spots and laptops, and negotiate better prices for duration of emergency.
  • NC DPI has proposed a summer “Jump Start” program for 1stthrough 4th graders who are performing below grade level, focused on literacy and math. Funding for the program is still under consideration by the NC General Assembly, and will likely include three weeks of instruction in August prior to the beginning of the school year.
  • NC General Assembly Education Committee is proposing school calendar flexibility to allow school districts to start one week earlier than planned (August 17).
  • The NCGA is discussing allocating additional federal funds for internet “hot-spot” access points throughout the state, providing devices to students and school staff, and other connectivity concerns.
  • North Carolina Department of Information Technology compiled a list of public wi-fi access locations and an interactive map that shows which internet service providers are offering free or affordable options for high-speed internet during this time.
  • Local communities across the state are delivering instructional materials and providing parked hot spots on school buses to locations without internet access.

As North Carolina continues to grapple with the coronavirus in the upcoming weeks and months, the inequitable impacts of remote learning on children with access and those without may continue to reverberate for years to come.