Gonzales: COVID-19 has made the digital divide a canyon for Latino students
The pandemic has shined a harsh light on the deep economic, health and educational inequities in this nation, especially in Latino communities. File photo.

    I used to worry about the well-documented “summer learning loss” for Latino students who lost ground over the summer months between school years.

    With COVID-19 forcing the schools to conduct classes remotely to protect the health of students, school staff and families, they’re now relying on technology to teach and reach their students.

    As result, I now worry about a lifetime learning loss for our kids who are struggling to learn at home, a loss that could put them behind forever.

    It is too early to know the final impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on our California Latino communities. However, it is clear at this early stage of the crisis, the impact on low-income Latino students has been significant, and in the long run, could be crippling.

    This is not just an issue of access to technology, as important as that it is, especially for under-resourced school districts serving high poverty neighborhoods, immigrant communities or non-English speaking families.

    Even families with secure incomes and homes, well-educated English-speaking parents and good technology have difficulties with distance learning. But they also have better-financed schools that have been able to jump quickly with the right technology.

    This summer, a Los Angeles Times survey of 45 Southern California school districts found profound gaps in distance learning among children attending school districts in high-poverty communities.

    The Times survey found that districts serving communities with the lowest incomes — all with a majority of Latino students — already faced a big digital divide when campuses closed in mid-March. These districts had trouble starting online learning and procuring computers and hot spots.

    Providing computer notebooks and internet hotspots is essential but not enough to address the true digital divide for Latino students.

    Think about the enormous obstacles facing families with wage-earners who are working two jobs to pay the rent, if they still have them; who live in small crowded apartments with no quiet space for studying; who have many children competing for limited bandwidth, if there is WiFi access at all — and no one at home who can solve the inevitable technology problems thrown at them by their schools.

    These kids are not learning as they should, and they need help.

    When the world shut down in March, the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley had to pivot, just like everyone else, to an entirely new way of delivering our services and adjust to health and safety protocols.

    We immediately moved to providing online after-school and summer programs for our students and parents, and we continue to support our program partners to provide access to those services and resources.

    And we found that Latino families are eager and ready to access more education resources virtually. As an example, parents participating in our Parent Engagement Academy use mostly smartphones to access our webinars and have been active participants in these sessions.

    But a big snag in expanding our programs is that some of our partner schools aren’t quickly adapting to change and new technologies. Unfortunately, many of the public schools we work with are not offering any online learning or provide minimal resources.

    What’s been required this year will become normal for the future, so now is the time to support schools and push them to adopt technologies and practices that will improve education in all communities.

    But helping our kids learn is more than just an issue for the schools, and certainly more than technology: the achievement gap for Latinos has many causes.

    For example, access to affordable health care is essential, when a job injury or a significant illness can bankrupt a family. Access to affordable housing is essential, especially for frontline workers who struggle with minimum wage jobs. More opportunities for better jobs for parents and teens are essential to put them on a ladder for long-term success.

    These are not new challenges, but the pandemic has shined a harsh light on the deep economic, health and educational inequities in this nation.

    We have the opportunity, and the obligation, to help our Latino families cope with distance learning and the digital divide. Our future and theirs depend on it.

    Ron Gonzales is the CEO of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley and former Mayor of San Jose.

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