Impacts of Distance Learning on Immigrant-Origin Students, Particularly English Learners, Underscore Need for Greater Focus on Digital Equity
WASHINGTON — Though most schools across the United States have resumed in-person instruction, it is important to share the lessons learned and promising practices resulting from the shift to distance learning that occurred early during in the COVID-19 pandemic and later after the arrival of the Delta variant. The public health crisis and sudden move to virtual classes exposed the longstanding digital divide in terms of students‘ access to computers, high-speed internet and digital skills training.
A new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s Human Services Initiative traces the negative impacts of the digital divide and other barriers to learning for immigrant-origin students from low-income households, including higher rates of absenteeism and disenrollment. Drawing from interviews with educators, refugee resettlement agency staff, community leaders and library and information technology personnel in six states, the report identifies promising practices for increasing digital access and literacy among children ages 15-17 who are immigrants or have at least one immigrant parent. The states studied were Arizona, California, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
Lack of access to reliable internet was the biggest reported challenge for many immigrant-origin students in the shift to remote learning, with about 40 percent of schools lacking a distance learning plan before or during the pandemic. Even as some schools issued hotspots, slow internet speeds, data caps and connectivity dead zones hampered learning. Learning management systems, which permitted students to move from one virtual classroom to another and to communicate with teachers and classmates, also proved problematic for English Learners (ELs), in particular those with limited digital literacy. Schools that fared better in the transition to remote learning had laptop programs for students in place before the pandemic, and offered material and social supports, the report found.
The report makes a series of recommendations for ways the federal government, school systems, refugee resettlement programs and other immigrant-serving organizations can increase access to digital tools and literacy—often at little to no cost. Among them:
- The Federal Communications Commission should consider incentivizing or requiring internet service providers to offer discounted plans with unlimited data and faster broadband speeds to low-income households.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement should develop a digital inclusion program to increase access to and adoption of digital tools in refugee communities, including funding digital navigators and a technical assistance provider.
- Local school districts and schools should assess students’ digital skills and provide basic digital skills orientation to some or all students, including immigrant-origin ones.
- Refugee- and immigrant-serving organizations should partner with local libraries to provide immigrant-origin youth with access to computers, broadband internet and digital skills training.
- State refugee coordinators and state offices of new Americans should engage their respective governor’s office or other state and local government officials to ensure that immigrants’ needs are reflected in state or local digital equity plans.
“Discussions of immigrant integration policies often center on education and employment. But such discourse is incomplete without a focus on increasing digital equity,” the authors write. “Policymakers and practitioners can take steps to help immigrant families gain better access to digital tools and training by leveraging lessons learned and innovations from periods of remote learning during the pandemic. Doing so is essential for both advancing immigrant integration and modernizing the policy and service frameworks that undergird them.”
The report, Advancing Digital Equity Among Immigrant-Origin Youth, can be read here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/digital-equity-immigrant-origin-youth.
And for more work from MPI’s Human Services Initiative, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/human-services-initiative.