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Sunday Reflections: Are schools discriminating against the socioeconomically disadvantaged?

A funny thing happened on the way to the school year.

This year, the school is doing basically everything online.  Registering online.  Communicating online.  Signing forms online.  Online, online, online.

The 2 weeks before school started we had long lines of parents and students waiting for computers at the public library trying to register and print off schedules.  They were cranky.  They were stressed.  They complained because they didn’t have access and they weren’t getting information from the schools that they needed.

And then it happened to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have access to some basic technology. Usually.  I have a laptop.  We have wifi at home.  Although money can be tight at our house, Wifi is one of the things we can’t sacrifice because of our jobs.  For a long time, we didn’t have it and trust me, it stinks.

But when I needed information from the school I still couldn’t access it because of a technology glitch.  In order to find out who my child’s teacher was this year and to sign some important forms, I had to log on to our school’s parent portal.  Except it wouldn’t let me in.  It said that our email account wasn’t on file.  It was, but apparently a handful of parents had this problem.  We called the school, they couldn’t help us.  We called the administration building, they couldn’t help us.  Our only option was to wait until the night of Open House.

So on the night of Open House, we stood in a long line of “have-nots” who didn’t know what room to go to because they didn’t have online access while the “haves” strode in through the door confidently, going directly to the rooms they needed to go to with completed forms firmly in hand.  Many of them were in and out while I waited in line.  I watched them enviously as I stood in the hot Texas sun waiting for someone to tell me what just last year they had kindly told me personally in the mail.

That’s right, the years before we had always received a nice letter of introduction from the teacher with a copy of the school supply list.  My child knew who she was going to have and had been warmly invited by the new teacher.  There was some personalization, there was warmth.  But most importantly, there was communication.  Angels sang a heavenly chorus in praise of the levels of communication.

This year, our school, like so many others, went online.  Gone was the personalization.  Gone was the communication.  And for those students whose families struggle to put food on the table (an estimated 1 out of 5), gone also was the access.  In our case, the tween’s peers knew a full week before her who their teacher was, what was expected of them, and what she needed to do and bring on that night of open house.  It made me better sympathize with those long lines of frustrated patrons waiting for computers in my public library.

And I know as you read this some of you probably think I am being a smidge dramatic regarding my “haves” and “have-nots” comment earlier in this post; but that is exactly what is happening here.  As schools go more and more to an online only system, their assumption is that everyone has access.  But that is not the case.  Technology is not free.  Internet access is not free.  There is an expense associated with it, an expense that many families can’t afford.  Forgetting that many of our tweens and teens don’t have that access puts them at a disadvantage.  There is the stress of trying to meet the demands of an increasingly online only school system.  Sometimes there is an information lag due to access that puts them at a disadvantage.  Sometimes that means they don’t have access to the technology that they need to meet the requirements of paper work or assignments.

In some ways, public libraries help.  But all public libraries have limitations on their computer access in order to meet the needs of high numbers of people.  This means we must place time limits and sessions limits on our computers.  And if there are enough people waiting, patrons can’t always get what they need done.  There are times when you can walk into my library and have to wait over an hour for a computer, demand can be that high.  Most days we have lines of people standing outside waiting to get in when we first open.  Access to information is one of the hallmarks of what I believe in, what libraries believe in.  But when access can only be found online, there are incredible barriers.  I would even go so far as to say that when we require people to apply online, to fill out paperwork online, and more, that we are, in fact, discriminating against and setting people who are struggling to find their way out of poverty up for failure.

And don’t even get me started on how many jobs can only be applied for online and how you even have to file for unemployment benefits – online.  Because the unemployed have great access to technology. 

The digital divide is real. I see it being lived out every day in my library. 

More on Poverty at TLT:
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty 
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
Sunday Reflections: Going to be hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 

More on The Digital Divide:
7 Myths of the Digital Divide:
The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind:
The Digital Divide and Its Impact on Academic Performance:
Digital Divide: Bridging the Gap:
Education World: Caught in the Digital Divide:


  1. Loved this post and it's so true. At least I didn't have that happen and I feel so bad you and others had to deal with it. This year the kids at my daughters middle school have to have smart phones for an app they use in all their classes. My had one already but all I could think of is all the kids that can't afford it.

  2. This is true across the board for our public library. Frustrated parents who can't figure out how to log into the school's website (and we can't help them, b/c the school has never given us instructions or access). Frustrated patrons trying to fill out government forms online, especially elderly people who have never done it before. Often our computers won't let people fill out certain forms b/c there's software attached that has to download and the computers won't allow it. We're also a quasi-rural community and people don't seem to realize that there just isn't internet access everywhere. I use an expensive data hotspot which is still cheaper than wireless, which would require me to purchase a landline (don't ask me why, I have no idea). Can most people afford this? Probably not.

  3. My goodness, I would be so angry as a parent. We have specifically chosen not to give our absent-minded, slightly irresponsible middle school kid a phone. Those are some of the big reasons but truthfully, we just don't feel like he needs one.

    To need one because of school feels like a blow to a parenting decision that has been a matter of much discussion and debate between the two of us.

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