To slow the spread of the coronavirus, schools across the United States are expecting students to continue learning at home. That means attending real-time class meetings, completing worksheets and online modules, and even taking exams online. Unfortunately, some schools are also holding students accountable for at-home learning, basing grades, course placements, and college eligibility on work completed at home. That accountability, I will argue, has the potential to exacerbate longstanding inequalities in school.
Some students may not have home environments conducive to at-home learning. That includes students without stable housing as well as students whose home lives are more turbulent (Herbers et al. 2012). In my research on homework (Calarco 2020), for example, I talked with Ms. Marrone (all names are pseudonyms), a working-class white mother who runs a home daycare and cares for her elderly father. Talking about her son Shawn, she explained:
"We can’t do homework after school, because I have tons of kids [that I’m babysitting], and then once kids are picked up, I’m making dinner. So sometimes, I would say to [Shawn], “Okay, come sit in the kitchen.” But then Shawn would nod off. Or grandpa would need Shawn to help him with something. So then it would be, 'All right, we’re doing it [homework] definitely after dinner.' But it would be 8:30 or 9 by that point. So it just wouldn’t get done. It’s the way our household is. It’s a little crazy."
Some students may also struggle with at-home learning because their families are on the wrong side of the digital divide (Hargittai 2010; Puckett 2019). Prior research has connected problems with internet access to problems completing homework (Auxier and Anderson 2020). With instruction now happening online, and with public libraries and afterschool programs closed, the academic consequences of the digital divide are likely to be even more pronounced.
Students with working parents and parents with less education may also get more limited support with at-home learning. In my research on homework, I find that, even in normal times, these parents find it difficult to help children with homework. I talked with one mother, a GED recipient, who told me: “I still can’t really figure out division. And you have no idea how hard that is. Sometimes you just feel stupid. And I’m like: ‘I should be able to help my son with his homework in fifth grade.’”
Schools, in turn, may not treat struggling students with the empathy they need. In my work, I find that when vulnerable students fail to complete their homework, schools hold them accountable with disciplinary sanctions and lower grades (see also Golann 2015; McMillan, Myran, and Workman 2002). Meanwhile, students from privileged families are granted considerable leeway with homework rules. Given such findings, it seems likely that privileged students will not only have an easier time completing at-home learning but also face fewer consequences if they decide to opt out.
If educators and policymakers want to avoid exacerbating inequalities in the wake of COVID-19, they should temper their expectations for at-home learning and treat struggling students with empathy, not accountability. At the same time, educators and policymakers should not simply give up on students whose circumstances limit at-home learning. Instead, schools should help students access digital technologies, give students and families clear instructions for completing at-home work, provide options for offline and asynchronous learning, and recognize that, even with support, some students and families might struggle to get the work done—not because the “priority” they place on school is too low, but because the barriers they face are too high.
Furthermore, when schools do reopen, educators and policymakers must be ready to help students pick up where they left off and even regain knowledge lost while schools were closed (Alexander, Pitcock, and Boulay 2016; Stewart, Watson, and Campbell 2018). That, in turn, will require extending the school year and the school day or offering high-quality afterschool programs where trained teachers — not parents — are the ones providing support.