A Perfect Storm: Digital Inequality, Conflict, and Online Learning | Anna Bussler

While the height of the initial COVID-19 pandemic left all areas of Georgia scrambling for solutions as everything closed down, schools were hit especially hard during the rough transitions from in-person learning, to online-only, and then to hybrid options. In some areas of Georgia, especially in more rural communities, these difficulties were exacerbated by conflict over how to handle the pandemic while maintaining individual rights. At my local high school, many parents did not believe in the efficacy of wearing masks, while some threatened to withdraw their children from school if masks were not mandated for attendance. Between this conflict, the school’s staff and resources were stretched extremely thin; they were forced to offer fully in-person, fully virtual, and hybrid arrangements for learning. While nearly all schools have experienced some form of this conflict throughout the pandemic, many rural schools struggled because of the digital inequality these areas face. In short, a stable internet connection can be hard to find in these communities. All of these factors, in addition to the strange paradigm of young adulthood, created an unusual experience for students at my alma mater.

To capture the sentiment of a significant portion of the population, one student at the school created an online petition in protest of the school’s COVID safety guidelines. The petition, which gained over 600 signatures of community members, argues that high school administration should do away with the football student section’s capacity limit and mask policy. One student writes, “It’s not the same when you can’t have all of your friends cheering beside you, and have the upcoming seniors cheering behind you.” Others write, “it’s to [sic] hot to wear a mask outside,” “I just want to have fun,” and “wunna [sic] have a normal senior year.” Of course, many students across the nation have felt similarly watching their high school experience go down the drain as pandemic restrictions began to seem like a permanent fixture of life. However, it is important to think about these students’ opinions in light of their circumstances, rather than writing them off as “dumb teenagers.”

In hindsight, it is easy to feel extremely frustrated with these teens as they fought for a high school football student section while hospitals were overrun with COVID patients. However, this stark contrast of priority reflects an adolescent’s limbo in life. While these students were treated like children at school and at home, they were suddenly burdened with the adult-sized responsibility of keeping the community safe and healthy. These simultaneous expectations for them to behave like children in some ways and adults in others left many students confused and overwhelmed, as can be seen in the petition. In addition to these delineated boundaries of responsibility, their confusion was exacerbated by many adults’ anger in the area. I watched as many parents of these teens posted on Facebook that COVID was a hoax, that the pandemic was planned, and that masks would result in brain damage due to increased CO2 levels. Again, these ideas were circulated all over the country, but it is many conservative, rural that areas felt these effects the hardest (Mueller, et al.). With many parents and mentors of the teens declaring that COVID was a ruse, it is no wonder that many students were not sure what to believe. This confusion in tandem with the blurred lines of social responsibility left many of these rural teens in especially confusing circumstances.

High school staff during these times were also stuck in a particularly tough situation. Many schools across the country went fully virtual, while some tried to remain in person with hybrid learning options. While this was a difficult time for all students, teachers, and administrators, rural areas were especially disadvantaged by these changes. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, poverty levels in rural areas of America are much higher than urban areas, and these areas of poverty are clustered in the South. Specifically affecting the students doing online and hybrid learning, 84.3 percent of child poverty cases in 2019 were found in the rural South. Along with these hardships, which can make online school extremely difficult alone, the digital inequality affecting these areas is even more daunting to navigate. Because populations in rural areas of Georgia are spread thin throughout hilly terrain, it is not economically advantageous for internet services to cover all residents. In fact, in the areas served by my high school, the Federal Communications Commission reports that most regions only have 400-600 households per 1,000 with fixed internet access. In particular, one small town feeding into the high school only has 200-400 households with fixed internet per 1,000. While online and hybrid learning has certainly been difficult for all schools, 79 percent of urban areas have a connection to broadband, while around two-thirds of rural areas have this luxury (Chin). For many students at my alma mater, these statistics mean that they may not be able to log on to school from home, and much less able to learn and get good grades. 

Interviews with a teacher and administrator highlight the pitfalls of these inequalities at the school. While offering a combination of in-person, fully virtual, and virtual classes for students in quarantine, the school has seen the success of online students fall significantly. One teacher reports in an interview that although only 18 percent of students are fully virtual, these online students make up one-third of the entire school’s failing grades. She also describes that some online students cannot even be contacted by the school, through phone, email, or mail. Some administrators have had to go to the student’s registered address to check on them; and sometimes, the student does not even live there anymore. She is quick to note that just because a student has been logging on to school, this does not mean they are necessarily doing well in classes. Many students (and teachers) have had significant trouble navigating the school’s online learning platform, adding another layer of confusion and stress to the already tough situation. 

The pandemic has been easy for no one; everyone has had to make significant changes in daily life to accommodate this ongoing pandemic. But for some students, the difficulties of the pandemic have been even more perpetuated by confusion and unavoidable inequalities. While some students have the luxury of enjoying school from home, many rural students do not have the resources or internet connection to do so. In addition to these differences, the social conundrum of many parents in this area treating COVID as a hoax in the face of science has left students unsure of what can be believed. So, before writing these students off as misguided teenagers, it is important to think about how these attitudes came to be and how the pandemic has impacted some communities in different ways than others.

Sources

Administrator interview, 3 December 2020.

Change.org petition, created September 2020.

Chin, Monica. America’s internet wasn’t prepared for online learning. The Verge. (2020, October 7). Retrieved January 300, 2022, from https://www.theverge.com/21504476/online-school-covid-pandemic-rural-low-income-internet-broadband

Mueller, et al. Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (2021, January 5). Retrieved February 8, 2022, from https://www.pnas.org/content/118/1/2019378118 

Residential fixed internet access service connections per 1,000 households by census tract- December 2018. Federal Communications Commission. (2018, December. Last updated 2020, October). Retrieved January 30, 2022, from https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/tract-level-residential-fixed-connections-dec-2018/ 

Rural Poverty & Well-being. USDA ERS – Rural Poverty & Well-Being. (2021, December 3). Retrieved January 30, 2022, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-poverty-well-being/   

Teacher interview, 4 December 2020.

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