They moved school online and locked the underprivileged kids out

Educational authorities have a moral obligation to find solutions for families with limited or no access to computers, internet and tech skills

The Coronavirus has taught us that all human beings are in the same boat. Rich or poor, black or white, Jew or Arab, citizen or refugee – we are all equal in our vulnerability, and we can all transmit or contract the potentially deadly virus. This is a time for solidarity and unity.

At least it should be. But this Corona moment has exposed some of the deepest rifts in Israeli society. These rifts could potentially have a devastating effect on an entire generation of our children. Yet it would be easy to mitigate these terrible consequences.

Despite the pandemic, the entire Israeli school system, from first through 12th grades, has been working throughout the past four weeks. Confined to their homes, teachers have been teaching for many hours a day, using Zoom or other internet platforms.

But this solution for education under lockdown has willfully ignored the digital divide: a substantial proportion of Israeli children do not have access to computers or the internet and neither they nor their families have the necessary technical skills to access Zoom or other platforms.

Characteristically, discussions in the Ministry of Education during the days leading up to the lockdown focused on the challenges of remote teaching and the quality of online education. These discussions ignored any mention of those many children whose families don’t have enough – or even any – computers or internet access.

Furthermore, even families who have computers and internet access may not have the technological acumen to connect to the platforms the Ministry of Education has been using. As the frequent complaints from parents, teachers and students reveal, these classes are difficult to access even for Israeli-born, middle- and upper-middle class families. For immigrant families and others with less tech skills, these programs are almost impossible to use.

Some families may have a computer, but a single computer is not enough for three or four children, each of whom needs a computer in order to participate in class. In other families, there may be enough computers, but no connection to the internet. Or even if there is a connection to the internet, family members may lack the technological knowledge to ensure that their computers and internet connection are working.

Children on the wrong side of the digital divide are almost always from poor families living in crowded conditions. Many are already struggling to keep up with the regular curriculum, which is often based on the assumption that parents are able to help their children master critical skills, including reading. For these children, missing out on weeks or even months of classes while other children are studying and learning may well be an educational blow from which they will never be able to recover.

Even before the online distance learning put them at a further disadvantage, children and teenagers from poor homes were much more likely to end up dropping out of school and most perform far below their potential; few matriculate with grades high enough to enable them to enter university. They may already feel excluded; in this situation, they may feel like pariahs. Preventing these children from learning, because of poverty or lack of internet, could push even more of them over this dangerous ledge and out of the educational system entirely.

Aveva, an Ethiopian immigrant who is raising her three children alone, sums up just how difficult this situation is. She has a computer at home, but does not allow her children to use it. “If I let them use it, they will fight about it all day and call me at work constantly complaining,” she says. She admits that she is worried that other children are learning while hers are not, but her response reveals how difficult her situation is. “I’m preoccupied with other things,” she says. “I am a cleaner at a health clinic. People come in sick and don’t always use masks. I’m worried about getting sick. My kids are all smart. They’ll catch up,” she sighs. “I’m raising the children on my own. I’m afraid to stop working. The main thing right now is that we should all stay healthy.”

There are hundreds of thousands of children like Aveva’s children, suffering both educational and emotional blows at this time. It is unacceptable to provide distance, internet-based learning without providing a way for each and every child to log on successfully. This is morally equivalent to opening the schools – but refusing to allow children from economically weaker homes to enter. Our society’s strength and resiliency depend on solidarity.

The solutions to the problem are clear: The Ministry of Education must provide computers – as gifts or loans – to every child who does not have one, along with internet hookup for those families without, and the ministry must provide technological help over the phone for everyone who needs it to access platforms.

Even in normal times, helping the next generation of Israeli children bridge the digital divide is essential to the health of our society and the future of our children. Right now, it is an emergency that must not be ignored.

Dr. Shula Mola is former Chairperson and current board member of the Association for Ethiopian Jews.

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer is a founder and board member of the Association for Ethiopian Jews.

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