As the spread of COVID-19 continues to fluctuate, students around the world start a new academic year with some schools opting to teach virtually as a safety precaution. For many students living in internet dead zones, lacking secure housing or whose families cannot afford laptops or high-speed internet, this virtual school experience not only ignores underlying inequitable resource allocation but also how students from working-class families have been historically defunded and remain unaddressed within the virtual structure. While some places have gotten creative with making education cheaper and accessible, such as New Jersey, Peru and China offering televised learning and sending tablets, the navigation of the digital landscape in the midst of an ongoing pandemic only exacerbates existing inequitable resource distribution for working class families and families made poor.
When internet companies refuse to set up broadband access in areas where they deem to have “less financial incentive” to service, such as rural or working class neighborhoods, who is being denied? When broadband is available, the cost of high-speed internet service (which is needed to make virtual work and schooling doable) is above what can be afforded for low-income families. With 42.5% of working people not being paid livable and dignified wages (less than $15 and hour) by their employers, this produces the conditions of their disenfranchisement. An intersectional analysis reveals how class and race interact when we see that on a federal level, broadband funding is granted to rural white areas and not to metropolitan Black and Latinx neighborhoods.
When we see how working-class students and students of color are being disenfranchised by default, we can also see that the pandemic is only reproducing what already existed by design. In California, for example, 4th-grade students without home internet score on average 15-17% lower in math, science and reading tests, and the gap grows wider with each grade. While this disparity in academic scores is not new, the pandemic does highlight how government policies and privatised internet carriers have and continue to heavily influence these outcomes. This is thanks in large part to classist and racist narratives that justify financial and federal decisions to limit or deny internet access to low-income families of colour. Black and Latinx students, students in low-income households and houseless students should not and do not have to prove their worthiness to gain basic and necessary resources for academic success.