Income inequality through the Zoom screen

Providing Chromebooks and internet hot spots isn’t enough for low-income students to succeed


Abdullah Memon

Income Inequality revealed by online school and the effects it has on our community

Abdullah Memon

For over a year now, most MVHS students have been stuck in an online school setting.  Distance learning has had its benefits for some students –– they no longer have to wake up early, can attend classes from the comfort of their own home and have more allocated free time. However, this also means that days are filled with tiring Zoom meetings, lengthy Google Forms, never-ending EdPuzzles and sporadically functioning access to Schoology. Students lose access to face-to-face interaction, steadily lose motivation and develop difficulties with time management. For low-income students and schools with disadvantaged youth, however, the drawbacks are immensely worse. As many schools remain closed, poorer students are having a difficult time grappling with the growing economic inequalities –– problems that are often hidden in privileged bubbles like Cupertino. Though our community has tried to address the problem, with FUHSD providing 2,408 Chromebooks and 197 internet hotspots to students, it still does not solve the systematic inequalities revealed by online school.

Low-income students had a difficult time in school, even before the pandemic. With income inequality on the rise, it raises the question –– what are the effects of this problem on education? Not only do low-income students have poorer cognitive and physical health, but they are also five times more likely to drop out of high school and 13 times less likely to graduate, according to Insight into Diversity. Higher education is increasingly necessary for a stable financial future, but without receiving access to education, low-income students earn drastically less and remain in a cycle of poverty. 

As former Secretary of Education, John King Jr. explains on NPR ‘’ “We know that when we have summer learning loss, it is a significant driver of our achievement gaps for low-income students” he goes on by saying “we’re looking at five or six months away from direct instruction in the classroom. Even in places that do distance learning well, we can expect that students will lose significant ground.” 

As schooling shifted to an online setting, economic disparities became more obvious. However, disadvantaged youth often do not have a quiet space for work, a phone to take photos of homework and other resources. Simply suggesting eliminating distractions and finding a quiet space to succeed in online school is often unattainable for low-income students. Many of these students may longingly look at the little boxes on their Zoom screens in which their peers are able to close the door in their own private, spacious room.

Due to the pandemic, libraries and coffee shops are closed, so economically disadvantaged classmates had to attend class at home while managing living arrangements and internet issues, along with siblings and working parents. This process can often be frustrating and demotivating, leading these individuals to be more likely to give up. 

Online school can also contribute to failing mental health, an issue that is largely present in low-income students. It is not far-fetched to say that the unequal treatment of poorer students (Why don’t you have your camera on?), along with online school (Sorry, my internet cut out again. Can you put me back in a breakout room?) can often make them feel unheard and contribute to their failing mental health. 

Another large issue for low-income students is the lack of access to the internet, which acts as a barrier to success in the classroom. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, financially disadvantaged youth often do not have access to quality internet. The policy institute found that 48 percent of low-income students do not have access to broadband, or high-quality internet. This issue became national news when a photo was posted on social media showing two young Salinas girls attending school at a Taco Bell drive-thru because that was their only access to free, high-quality internet. Some city governments and nonprofits have stepped up to aid students who are facing these barriers. For example, the City of San Jose is providing 8,000 hotspots for students who need them. However, there are still millions of students across the country that do not have access to the internet. 

Young and disadvantaged students have jobs at a higher rate than their higher-income peers –– close to half of employed students are low-income. The main difference between low-income and higher-income student workers is why they work. Middle-class and high-income students work to get experience, while low-income students rely on their job to make ends meet. Attending online school, which is already difficult to adapt to, while working can be mentally and physically draining. 

All students are expected to “work hard.” However, as revealed by distance learning, no matter how hard you work, you will have a much harder time succeeding if you are poor, whether it’s “succeeding” by graduating or even by getting food on the table. Online school has amplified how low-income students disproportionately face the brunt of the failure of our education system. Most of MVHS’s student population, on the other hand, can afford the luxuries that allow them to succeed. On average, Cupertino families earn over six figures and only five percent of our school is ‘economically disadvantaged,’ according to the MVHS school profile. The numbers are much higher throughout the district, with close to 14 percent at Homestead High and over a third at Fremont High. 

Our privilege allows the injustice and inequality of others to be ignored. We must, however, come together as a community to demand equity and tackle the systems that are holding others back.  Demanding justice means educating yourself and others. It means calling your representatives to pass policies like affordable internet for all, free school lunches, affordable housing and more. It means no longer standing on the sidelines, and using your voice to lift others up.