Pedro Noguera: School Closures Expose Social Inequity

Loss of access to education and wraparound services proves an expensive lesson to communities, local and state governments.

UCLA Distinguished Professor of Education Pedro Noguera was a recent guest on Marketplace’s “Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly,” discussing the effects of nationwide school closures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A scholar of schools and the urban environment, Noguera shared his perspectives on the shortfalls of distance learning for schools, pointing out how socioeconomic inequities play out in the short and long-term futures for students and families as 70 percent of all schools in the U.S. are currently closed. He notes that although education is enjoying a “golden age of technology and teaching,” the reality of keeping students at home – without access to their own computers or the internet – will only widen the achievement gap.

“We’ve known for a long time that there was this digital divide, which was just another way of talking about the fact that there are large numbers of people who don’t have computers at home – especially kids – and who don’t even have internet access where they live,” says Noguera. “So, when you rely on virtual learning as a way to make up for the inability to meet at school, you’re really leaving a lot of the kids out.”

Noguera underscored the fact that along with the loss of in-school instruction is the fact that many children have also lost access to nourishment – and in some cases, part-time shelter – at school sites.

“We’ve known for a long time that public schools play a vital role in the social safety net for children in this country,” Noguera says. “Over half of the kids in this country qualify for free or reduced lunch … many of them rely on school for basic nutrition. It’s not just lunch, it’s [also] breakfast for many kids. When school is closed, they don’t have access and we know what that means – we’re going to see more kids not eating regularly.

“So, the stability that schools provide to kids is so critical to their development. We know now that even more kids are vulnerable because schools are closing. This is a huge problem that we are not prepared for.”

Noguera says that while Los Angeles public television is working to fill the gaps with instructional programming, it will take time to get off the ground and might not be possible in other areas of the nation. He also underscores the unreliability or complete lack of internet access and technology in rural areas and some cities, as well as the inevitable glitches that occur when so many families are trying to access online learning. 

“It would be helpful if we got some clear guidance on what to do and what medium to use for this,” says Noguera. “It would have even been more helpful if we had seen this coming or realized a long time ago that access to the internet is vital for everyone – just for safety and security – and we took the steps to ensure that.

“I don’t want to criticize the governors and mayors – I do think they’re doing the best they can, but I think that there is still a lack of consistent information about the best ways to communicate. Many school districts are struggling on their own to get their teachers up to speed. So, this is uncharted territory and we’re going to see lots of stumbles along the way.”

Professor Noguera says that many students without adequate technology at home or with parents who have the resources and time to keep them engaged, will struggle to keep up with those students with these advantages. 

“If parents can keep their kids reading and keep them intellectually engaged at home, then the gap in learning is probably going to be negligible,” he says. “But for those parents who don’t have the means or the resources or time to do so, the kids are going to fall further behind.

“We’ve known for a long time, for example, that the kids who are in an enriched learning environment in the summer come back to school in the fall way ahead of the kids who’ve been sitting at home playing video games or just not involved in any meaningful learning. And we’re going to see those kinds of gaps in learning opportunities grow.”

To hear Professor Noguera on “Make Me Smart with Molly and Kai,” on Apple Podcasts, visit this link.