For the past two years, student life has been different. The university I attend, UCLA, transitioned to virtual learning, which meant students couldn’t see a single professor or classmate in person. For students from low-income families, like me, this change was extremely challenging.
More than 70 percent of students attended school remotely during the first year of the pandemic, statistics show. This greatly impacted educational opportunities and learning. Black, Latinx and Native American students suffered the most. Not only did they suddenly find themselves isolated from their schools and peers, but their families and communities were disproportionately impacted by job losses, unequal access to health care and vulnerability to COVID-19 infections.
My senior year at UCLA was a struggle. I majored in cognitive science, and Spanish, community and culture. For my most difficult classes, I was used to being able to consult my professors in-person when I needed help. The pandemic changed that.
Suddenly, I was stuck in my bedroom in Santa Clarita, miles away from campus. Attending office hours consisted of signing into Zoom for assistance from my professor. One especially hard class was coding; it was hard to understand the complexities of this mathematical subject by talking with someone through a computer screen.
Outside of class, there were fewer tutoring resources too. My parents couldn’t help me academically — my mother is a caregiver for an elderly woman, and my father is a driver who delivers doors in the greater Los Angeles area. Our house has small rooms and we share the space with another family, making our home a vulnerable place for potential infection. My parents’ main goal during the pandemic was to keep our family afloat economically and limit our exposure to the virus.
Nevertheless, I adopted a positive mindset. It was my last year of college and I was going to pass this course. Thankfully, I was able to get help with the coding from a friend who is an engineer.
My experience is similar to that of many low-income students. Nathalie Garcia, a high school student and my cousin, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents in Santa Clarita. She explained to me that her parents had to wake up early, so that she could have her own space in the room for virtual classes. Her school operated on Zoom and Google hangouts.
“This has been overwhelming for me,” Nathalie told me.
She was used to attending weekly math tutoring sessions in person at her school. But when school went remote, her teacher was no longer available to assist her outside of class. She ended up having to muddle through by herself — all of which took a toll on her math grade. Unlike some of her wealthier peers, Nathalie’s parents work in low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford private tutoring for her.
Our educational system was unequal even before the pandemic. Those inequalities were exacerbated when students transitioned to learning from home.
Since I graduated UCLA this past June, many schools and universities have transitioned back to in-person learning. However, the coronavirus continues to remain a threat to marginalized communities, particularly amid the Omicron surge which has pushed some schools to return to virtual classes. This is why educators and policymakers need to ensure any continued or future virtual school is more inclusive. Policies that can help level the playing field include offering free, online tutoring to low-income students, and asking teachers to hold extra office hours outside of normal class. Hiring additional teaching aids to work virtually with students who need additional support could also make a difference. Providing these resources in a second language, particularly Spanish, could also benefit students who have limited English proficiency. Teachers could also offer supplemental notes to accompany class lectures to help simplify challenging concepts.
These potential strategies acknowledge the barriers to virtual learning and the disadvantages faced by many low-income students and students of color. It’s important for educators, school administrators and policymakers to remember that many students don’t have reliable internet and computers, access to tutoring, or a stable learning environment at home. Only by taking these students’ needs and experiences into account can we ensure that all young people have the ability to thrive academically, even in a virtual world.
Jessica Nunez is an advocate for health care equity and a graduate of UCLA with Bachelor’s degrees in cognitive science, and Spanish, community and culture.