How online learning is unmasking disparities

District leaders must do everything possible, with limited funding, to close gaps both in school and at home during this crisis and beyond
By: | April 22, 2020
(Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash)(Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash)
Gustavo Balderas is the superintendent of Eugene School District 4J in Oregon.

Gustavo Balderas is the superintendent of Eugene School District 4J in Oregon.

As school districts strive and struggle to serve students and communities through the COVID-19 crisis—as we work to provide the best possible education to our diverse student bodies from a distance, under circumstances we’ve never before encountered—the issue of equity is at the forefront.

In schools, poverty is largely hidden as students come through our school doors with eager minds. The disparities in students’ lives outside of school can be masked by the equality within our schools. Students make friends, share lunch tables, and run and play together at recess, often without giving much thought to each other’s home lives.


Read: Updated: 200 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic


Now, the doors to that equitable school environment are closed, and the challenges of teaching outside the classroom setting have brought the inequities in our community and our education system into sharp focus.

Serving our community

We have much to be proud of in Eugene. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Oregon’s school buildings closed, districts had to pivot quickly to teaching at a distance and serving tremendous community needs. We partnered with other districts to share information and resources. We quickly began serving free meals for our community’s children, opened emergency childcare sites for first responders, and moved to virtual mental health supports. Our educators worked day and night to transform our educational delivery model in a matter of days and weeks.

Yet we haven’t solved the underlying inequities facing our community, where more than half of our elementary students qualify for free school meals, 14% of students experience disabilities, and 46 different languages are spoken in our students’ homes.


Read: How equity has overhauled grading in online learning


Working to address digital divide

As we began to build our distance learning program, we quickly discovered, as have others across Oregon and the U.S., the stark reality of how truly inequitable online distance learning would be.

To a great extent, distance learning is going to happen through technology. Thanks to our community’s past support of bond funding, we have ample student technology in our school buildings.

But the disparities in our community became more evident as we surveyed families to assess the technology and internet access they had—not at school, but at home. Many of our students lacked these prerequisite tools for online learning. And while the district in many cases can provide the technological tools, families are not equally equipped to support students in using them to access learning.

Ironically, our best efforts to continue educating our students through distance learning may serve to widen the opportunity and achievement gaps between our student groups.

On April 13, we had our first day of substantive, credit-bearing distance learning with students. It was a happy day for students who had the resources they needed and family assistance to transition to the online learning platform. For others, there were tears, including tears of frustration with new technology, because we had not yet been able to provide all of the support that families and students needed to be fully engaged in their new educational experience.

Ironically, our best efforts to continue educating our students through distance learning may serve to widen the opportunity and achievement gaps between our student groups. Those who have the resources to access online learning—including family assistance and supports as well as a place to call home—will continue to learn during this crisis, while others who don’t have the same resources will fall behind. This is a dilemma that will continue to haunt our educational systems.


Read: Why absenteeism and attendance are growing school concerns


Doing what it takes to ‘catch up’

The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause these inequities, it merely amplified them. Our duty is to do everything we can, with limited funding, to close disparities both in school and at home during this crisis and beyond. In Eugene, we are distributing thousands of school laptops and tablets to students, working to support internet access, teaching families to use these tools, and providing paper packets for those who cannot or will not access online learning. And we know that it is not enough to keep the gaps from widening.

We face adversity, but we will rise to the challenge. As educators, it is our moral obligation to support, care for and educate every child. Today’s circumstances make it harder than ever to provide that support and education equitably, but we will never give up for our students, for our families and for our community.

We may falter, but we will not fail. We will stumble, and we will pick ourselves up and get back on track. We will fall behind with some students, and we will do what it takes to catch up with their needs. We will struggle and strive, and we will emerge from this crisis stronger together.

Our students deserve no less.


Gustavo Balderas is the superintendent of Eugene School District 4J in Oregon. In February, he was named the 2020 National Superintendent of the Year at the National Conference on Education, hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.


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