Digital divide: How Covid-19 is deepening inequality in education
A two-tier system is emerging with affluent schools more likely to have better learning platforms
Laura McCarthy at her home in Ballivor, Co Meath, with her family James, Robyn and Peter and dog, Chad. Photograph: Alan Betson
Fee-paying schools are more likely to have better learning platforms, a recent report highlighted. Photograph: iStock
The pandemic has slammed school doors shut for the second time in less than a year. In general, teachers and students are better prepared than they were back in March 2020, when schools across the world scrambled to develop remote learning systems.
But the latest lockdown will, once again, highlight a stark divide in education between the children and schools who can access to the best digital learning resources - and those who are at risk of being left behind, according to experts.
Families who can afford grinds, private tuition or a private education are often at an advantage over families in the public school system, or families who cannot afford extensive private tuition.
Meanwhile, significant parts of rural Ireland still lack the broadband infrastructure to enable remote learning.
Dr Selina McCoy, a researcher with the Economic and Social Research Institute, says found evidence of a digital divide between private schools and the rest of the school system during school closures last year.
McCoy is one of the authors of a recent report which highlighted the nature of the two-tier system and how fee-paying schools are more likely to have better learning platforms.
“This digital divide had a direct, but also wider impact: when a subset of students lacks connectivity or has to rely on inadequate access devices, this disadvantage not only those students but also other students in the school with better access, because teachers have to adjust their methods to cater for all their students,” she says.
All indications are that, once again, much of the private sector is in a better position to offer digital learning.
For example, the Institute of Education, a fee-paying school in Dublin, recently launched a full-time “virtual school” at a cost of euro2.5 million which, it claims, is “Europe’s largest secondary school installation for streaming and recording classes”.
All classes are recorded and delivered virtually via a live stream or available to watch back. This means that students from all over Ireland - and beyond - can learn remotely and, of course, be protected from sickness and potential health risks.
“Our virtual students get up in the morning, turn on the laptop and click on the attendance link for every class.,” says Yvonne O’Toole, principal at the Institute of Education.
“We have a team that supports virtual learners, with each student having a mentor that they liaise with every day to discuss assessments, issues and challenges. We have a full guidance team and study mentors. Our teachers are not ‘remote’; they’re central to the student’s virtual experience.”
That said, O’Toole believes that the best experience is an on-site education. “Students love being in school here, but if for any reason they can’t be, they can take classes virtually. There’s also an option for a blended approach: some of our students are training for the Olympics and they can already create their own timetable, but now they can watch recordings of their classes. Indeed, all students will be able to go back over their lessons which will help them in their study.”
The Institute of Education’s approach was well-planned and carefully considered, but with fees costing 7,950 per year, it’s one the school can afford to resource.
Disadvantaged schools, by contrast, are less likely to have the equipment to live-stream classes or else students in many cases may lack devices, access to broadband or have quiet study spaces.
Many rural schools are also in areas where broadband is patchy and it is difficult to teach online. Some vulnerable students have also had to fight to access online learning - or haven’t been able to access it at all over recent months.
Tracy McGinnis’s son Declan (12) has not been at school since last March and wasn’t able to access remote tuition when schools reopened in Septmeber.
She decided to keep him at home because his older brother Brendan is profoundly disabled and is categorised as very high risk in the event of contracting Covid-19.
While children who are labelled as very high risk are entitled to remote tuition under Department of Education policies, the siblings of such children have not been when schools were
Consequently, says McGinnis, Declan was not been able to access any tuition since September.
“At the start, he’d be sitting at the table at 9am, trying to do keep up with school books but he’s losing faith and losing interest. He feels no one cares - his words,” she says.
Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at the University of Limerick, says quality online learning requires lots of support and planning.
“ When we did a review into the iPad-only policy at Ratoath College [which recommending last January that it be dropped], we found that even in homes with a strong educational infrastructure, parents said that they didn’t initially see what a distraction being connected online could be. This is supported by global studies around digital learning.”
Every applicant at the Institute of Education is interviewed to ensure that they are highly motivated to learn, and O’Toole says this level of buy-in from the start, along with the intensive support from teachers, ensures that students won’t be distracted by social media or the internet.
“In most schools, blended learning can work well, but it requires a lot of involvement by parents and responsibility from all stakeholders,” says Marcus-Quinn.
Of course, students whose parents have the most time and resources are those who benefit most from a greater shift to digital learning, with disadvantaged students at risk of being left behind.
“We’d need a strong structure in place,” says Marcus-Quinn. “Australia has decades of experience of distance learning. We don’t have that lived experience here. Any moves in this direction need to be carefully mapped and planned.”
High risk families: ‘School closures hopefully mean our children will now be able to access their education’
Many parents will be tearing their hair out trying to manage work, childcare and education over the coming months.
But for one set of families, the latest round of school closures may come as a great relief. The Department of Education only provides remote learning for children who are themselves at very high risk of serious illness or death if they catch the virus.
Officially, there has been no provision of remote learning to children who have very high risk family members since last September.
However, due to the general closure of schools announced earlier this month, this is set to change becasue alll students are entitled to remote learning.
Ironically, schools closures will mean there is greater access to education for the children of high-risk mothers such as Laura McCarthty. She is a mother-of-two with a life-limiting condition and felt it was too risky to send her children back to school when they reopened last September.
“Education is very important to us and we didn’t want to keep the children out of school, but because we have been isolating since the start of 2020, school was the only way that Covid could come into the house,” she says.
“We’ve been asked: ‘what about their mental health and wellbeing’? But if they brought home a disease and I was in hospital or died, that would be far worse for them.
“And, as my husband is my carer and does everything around the house, we couldn’t risk him getting it either. School closures, for us, should hopefully mean that our children will now be able to access their education.”
While a vaccine is on the horizon for high-risk individuals, it’s likely that schools will reopen before it is fully rolled out - a source of concern for families like McCarthy and Rynne’s.
“We hope that their right to education won’t be taken away from them again,” says McCarthy.