Op-Ed: We Must Engage College Students To Help Bridge The Digital Divide

New York City is still trying to devise a plan on how to educate all of its 1.1 million, approximately 70 percent Black and Latinx, public school children. It is unclear whether the proposed plan for combined remote and in-class instruction will achieve this goal although experience this Spring strongly indicates low-income communities, particularly those of color, face numerous obstacles created by COVID-19 that reduce the likelihood of their children will get a proper education.

Mayor de Blasio’s assertion that the system’s mostly low-income, Black and Latinx students urgently need in-person classes is widely supported by education experts and was further supplemented by the recommendation of his advisory task force to hold split sessions allowing students to attend school five days a week.

Mayor de Blasio’s assertion that the system’s mostly low-income, Black and Latinx students urgently need in-person classes is widely supported by education experts and was further supplemented by the recommendation of his advisory task force to hold split sessions allowing students to attend school five days a week. The current part-time instruction plan does not account for the hardship remote learning places on families with school children living in low-income communities without access to broadband, tablets or computers much less someone to provide learning support.

There are families parking outside fast-food franchises in order to access Wi-Fi so their kids can do homework. This is unacceptable.


Like many parents in low-income communities Ms. Frankie Brown, a hospital clerk who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is not sure which days her children will be attending school and what they will do on days when she is at work and they are learning at home.

But he found almost 17 million American children live in homes without high-speed Internet and more than seven million don’t have a computer at home.

John B. Horrigan, a national expert on technology adoption, analyzed data from the 2018 American Community Survey and concluded affluent children will mostly be fine even without in-person classes. But he found almost 17 million American children live in homes without high-speed Internet and more than seven million don’t have a computer at home.

For disadvantaged kids, “online learning” is an oxymoron.

Recognizing the importance of providing broadband access to low-income communities, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to invest $157 million to extend Internet service options to 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 NYCHA residents over the next 18 months. But in 18 months many children will have lost nearly two years of studies – without increased investment in educational support services and personnel.

This insufficient “system” will have serious consequences for students, families, and our economy for years to come: One in five unemployed adults has stopped working because of the need to supervise online learning and/or care for younger children.

In 2009, it was estimated the gap between white students and Black and Latinx ones deprived the US economy of $310 billion to $525 billion a year in productivity, equivalent to two to four percent of GDP. The achievement gap between high- and low-income students was even larger, at $400 billion to $670 billion, three to five percent of GDP.

McKinsey reports that despite the enormous attention devoted to the achievement gap, it has remained a stubborn feature of the US education system. In 2009, it was estimated the gap between white students and Black and Latinx ones deprived the US economy of $310 billion to $525 billion a year in productivity, equivalent to two to four percent of GDP.

The achievement gap between high- and low-income students was even larger, at $400 billion to $670 billion, three to five percent of GDP.

The achievement gap between high- and low-income students was even larger, at $400 billion to $670 billion, three to five percent of GDP. Although these two gaps are calculated separately, Black and Latinx students are also more likely to live in poverty. Yet poverty alone cannot account for the gaps in educational performance.

So, how can we avoid a catastrophe? During the height of the pandemic, the City called for healthcare workers around the country to volunteer and work in the local hospitals. The school system faces a similar crisis in its inability to provide students in low-income communities the educational support they need to successfully navigate online education.

Related: Check out Harlem World Magazine’s Harlem Youth Publishing Empowerment program (H.Y.P.E.).

An immediate solution to this dilemma: A national call for college students to volunteer as mentors who can offer educational support to these students as well as insight into the mentor’s journey to college, providing the mentees a positive example of life’s possibilities.

College students, who are now mostly home themselves and engaged in online classes, can utilize this experience for extra credit, extracurricular activity, and a gift for the greater good.

We are at a critical time.

We can either think outside the box about how to educate all of New York City’s 1.1 million children and reduce the educational and economical gap between the haves and have-nots or we will deny another generation of students of color the opportunity for upward mobility while crippling the City’s economy for years to come.

Stephon Alexander, Ph.D.
Professor of Physics, Brown University
Executive Director, Harlem Gallery of Science and
Science and Arts Engagement New York
President, The National Society of Black Physicists

Stan Altman, Ph.D.
Professor, Marxe School
Baruch College
Visiting Professor, The City College of New York
President, Science, and Arts Engagement New York

Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of Harlem World Magazine.

Photo credit (l to r): Stephon Alexander and Stan Altman.


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