I Was a Virtual Teacher This Summer. Nobody Is Talking About the Real Reasons Public School Kids Will Struggle This Fall.

The digital divide is one thing, but socioeconomic pressures highlighted and intensified by the pandemic are creating new hurdles for the most marginalized students.

Virtual classes this fall will be made more difficult for students thanks to socioeconomic hurdles intensified by the pandemic. Cavan/Getty Images

“Make sure their cameras are on and they keep their mics muted,” my program director advised us on a Zoom conference call. “Even though we’re going virtual this summer, we need to make sure young scholars are still attentive and focused.”

For the past three years, I’ve served as a summer instructor for a college enrichment program in West Philadelphia. I teach a group of roughly 20 public high-school students about journalism, professional development, and career/college planning. They are Black and brown students who come from some of the most failing public schools in the city.

As a professional journalist, I’ve found giving up a few weeks of my summer to teach and mentor these students a way to give back. Growing up in circumstances similar to those many of my students experience, I didn’t have the privilege of being exposed to academic electives, such as the ones I teach, outside of my public school curriculum. So an opportunity to help address the inequities in my community while discussing a topic I’m passionate about felt like a win-win.

But compared to previous years’ programs, this summer’s was extremely difficult. The pandemic has disrupted the teaching process in a number of ways, and going to virtual classes isn’t as practical as some people have portrayed it. While I do believe that distance learning is the safest option as long as the infection rate isn’t slowing down enough to justify in-person learning, it’s arguably the most difficult.

My program required that all students have their laptop cameras on at all times and their audio muted until they were called on. This was deemed a sign of respect to the instructor and a sign that they were paying attention. As practical as this might sound, there were several unexpected factors that schools should consider heading into the fall.

For starters, all of my students this summer were provided Google Chromebooks and got wi-fi access through the program’s sizable grant funding. So much of the conversation in Philadelphia and other major cities has focused on lower-income students’ access to wi-fi and technology to bridge the digital divide. The Philadelphia school district recently got Comcast to commit to providing free wi-fi to more than 35,000 additional homes as part of a $17 million digital equity plan. While such initiatives are notable, they don’t account for the barriers that occur once the laptops are delivered and the router is connected.

One student of mine never activated the camera because the student’s house was literally in the dark. The student’s parents had a strict “no running up the electric bill” policy. Culturally, I understood the socioeconomic reasons the parents rationed electricity — they didn’t expect to have their child in the house all day using lights and such. As a result, I had to adjust to this student speaking to the class without video and making more use of the chat option.

Another student could only use the chat option because with the camera on, you could see that she was babysitting younger siblings — siblings who naturally made noise when the mic was on. This student told me during virtual office hours that since she was home, her mother put her in charge of watching her siblings to save money on babysitting. I had no choice but to let her go camera-off to avoid additional distraction to the class, not to mention the possible embarrassment she might have suffered in front of her peers.

More than one of my students had to abruptly leave a virtual lesson because the student was sharing a laptop with a family member who needed it to check unemployment status updates. Others had to run quick errands for family members in the daytime. And some just grew exhausted by the excessive screen time that allowed for little to no physical movement between back-to-back classes.

One could argue that parents should leave their children out of day-to-day home activities and treat them as if they were in school, but some have fairly argued, “Why?” In the middle of a devastating pandemic, many families need all hands on deck, and if kids are present, they’re required to chip in. Such circumstances have led me to be more lenient and understanding of students who are facing a new set of expectations — to learn and to help at home. My only fear during this summer elective has been how students will manage once their actual GPAs are on the line come the fall.

Public school systems must recognize that simply setting a student up with home wi-fi and scheduled lunch/breakfast pickup isn’t enough. Parents who are already struggling to make a living may enlist their kids for even more help along the way. Whether through caring for younger siblings or reducing their use of electricity, students are going to be expected to do more than just learn. We can’t penalize them for these circumstances; they’re the result of a crumbling economy that created inequity long before the pandemic. 

As I learned firsthand this summer as an instructor, these students still want to succeed. Whether they’re in a classroom with me or on a screen, I can see the hunger for a better life in their eyes and hear the excitement in their voices when they learn something new. We as educators and taxpayers must demand a more equitable teaching plan that considers all of these hurdles and discard our dated notions of what it means to be “attentive” and “focused” in a virtual classroom this fall. While some educators are calling for more radical ways of schooling (such as one-on-one teaching, outdoor lessons, and home-school co-ops), learning opportunities can also be more flexible and practical. This could involve providing more asynchronous classes that allow students to access lessons on their own time and without mandated instruction hours. It could also involve implementing a grading system that accounts for the new normal impacting these students: Rather than, say, impromptu quizzes, give students more extended projects and assignments that provide more flexibility and time to showcase their skills.

What every educator in Philadelphia should know is that public schooling doesn’t revolve around these kids’ lives as much anymore. Our children will have to deal with the demands of their households and the expectations of mastering their coursework. Cutting them some slack this time around might be the only way to ensure they succeed in the long run.

Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.