The impact of virtual learning on marginalized students

The side effects of moving in and out of lockdown has exposed a growing issue for marginalized youth in the Canadian education system. While most at risk in terms of health and well-being, these students had to quickly adapt to a transition to virtual classrooms and juggle challenges such as economic hardship, cultural pressures and finding access to technology.

A study by Wilfred Laurier University found that students most affected by online classes and isolation are those who identify as racialized or Indigenous, newcomers or individuals from disabled populations. 

These groups suffer from an achievement gap, in which there is a significant learning loss compared to students living in high-income environments. This is often caused by a lack of tools that are not easily accessible to low-income families, creating more barriers towards achieving passing grades and graduation.     

“These are students who don’t even have the basics,” says Laura Lin, a volunteer finance manager at Youth of Canada. “For online school, you need stable Wi-Fi and a good learning device at the least. You also need a safe space or shelter. Sometimes students struggle to have basic necessities like food or electricity. This is what makes it so much more difficult.”

Addressing the digital divide

The pandemic has forced school boards to think of new strategies to support the most impacted households with a lack of digital resources. Toronto District School Board (TDSB) spokesperson Ryan Bird says they have learned that equal distribution of devices was most important. 

“This [pandemic] has taught us that from now on, electronic devices will have to become a vital addition to the classroom,” Bird says. “So far, we have distributed approximately 75,000 devices for students, which include Chromebooks and iPads to make virtual learning more accessible.” 

Pathways to Education, an educational organization for marginalized youth, has conducted research on the impacts of the digital divide—an increasing gap between those with access to quality technology and those who do not. According to the research, it’s about environmental context. Many low-income students only had access to technology and a safe space in their local libraries, schools or community centres. These public services were vital for students’ social, emotional and cognitive development.

Pre-pandemic, Pathways to Education reported that in low-income communities, dropout rates were as high as 50 per cent, and it is predicted that this number will rise in the wake of the pandemic. 

As of 2020, Statistics Canada found that over 90 per cent of households within a metropolitan area had working Internet. However, a previous survey in 2018 has shown that 24.1 per cent of families with children under 18 in the lowest income bracket typically resorted to mobile devices for Internet access. In an online learning environment, this poses extreme difficulty for students with certain learning challenges, or educational assignments that require extensive reading and writing. 

In terms of university, flaws in technology and digital literacy have become a widespread issue. Ren Guidolin, a youth council member from Youth Aspire Canada, says that test proctoring softwares commonly used by universities during the pandemic are continuing to place students at a disadvantage, not only towards their success but for their online safety. 

“It’s a safety hazard. Basically you’re giving somebody, who’s not always your instructor, access to your computer,” he says. “A couple clicks, and all of a sudden they’re controlling your mouse. There was no warning about them being able to move your mouse around and viewing your files.”

Guidolin further explains that testing software is discriminatory towards students without access to a quiet space. “Sometimes a student can’t afford to have a quiet space to take tests, and a parent or sibling will forget that. They will look away for a moment and they’ll be accused of cheating.” 

Mental health matters

For students without resources, the loss of an outdoor study space has led to a prolonged time of isolation within a home environment that may not be as beneficial. Lin, who is also a student at University of Toronto, says that there were resources for students to reach out to but she did not feel like she was a priority. 

“It was hard to reach out to mental health facilities at my school because they’re appointment based,” says Lin. “Sometimes I would need help right now and I would have to wait a week.”

For the TDSB, Bird says that mental health is going to be a top priority moving forward for students recovering from trauma or struggling from mental health conditions.

“What we try to say at the TDSB is that there is a caring adult in all of our schools. It doesn’t necessarily mean speaking to a counsellor or social worker,” says Bird. “We want to encourage those conversations but at the same time we want students to know we do have those next tiers of support, such as social workers and psychologists.”

Overcoming barriers

Schools are not only a place for academics, they are a place of opportunity to help adolescents become prepared adults. Clubs and after school programs have been ideal for students who don’t have the tools to network outside of the classroom, but these important developments had to be paused during lockdown. 

Guidolin says that even before the pandemic, these resources were hard to find. This is especially the case for disenfranchised youth who have to put extra work into building their networking skills. However, most of them have to work an extra job to help pay tuition while struggling to maintain a high grade point average with no extra time to network.

Guidolin says this is a flaw in the secondary and post-secondary system.

“When schools don’t inform or provide helpful opportunities and treat assignment deadlines as absolute for their diploma or degree, students can start to think that grades matter more than work or experience,” he says. “Students are going to put a lot of pressure on school and that’s not fair because, while having a degree is great, you need experience to back it up.”

More programs outside of standardized education institutions are acting towards narrowing the achievement and digital gaps. Organizations such as Pathways to Education have been removing barriers towards secondary school graduation by providing services not available in standard school systems that address financial, academic and social individualized support. 

Bird is confident that the pandemic has better prepared not only Toronto districts, but all school districts across the country for future challenges. But most importantly, he wants returning students to know that pandemic or not, they can rely on the staff.

“We know it’s been challenging, and we’re here to help,” he says. “We want to make sure that we can support you as best we can to make this transition as gentle as possible.” 

About the author

Reporter at Youth Mind

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

Rebecca Benitez-Berona

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

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