Students in class at Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School. Photo courtesy of Academy of Hope

K-12 and university students were not the only people forced to transition to remote classes in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The digital divide between those who have access to modern technology and those who do not is even wider for students in adult education programs.

Some local organizations that offer adult learning programs have created new online classes, provided students with laptops, scheduled instructors for Zoom meetings, and provided take-home packets. The resources are helpful, but without a sufficient internet connection, a student’s progress grinds to a halt.

“If our students don’t have reliable internet access, in addition to a tablet, smartphone, or computer, it’s impossible to continue remote learning,” said Annette Larkin, a public relations consultant for the Washington Literacy Center. “We’re doing our best to support our students to continue their education online, but it’s a challenge for a variety of reasons.”

The Washington Literacy Center’s offices have been closed since March due to safety concerns. Roughly 200 students rely on the Washington Literacy Center for GED classes or job training. The fact that students can take advantage of online resources is great, but nothing beats in-person classes, according to Larkin.

“Teaching adult learners who are not already digitally literate compounds the challenge,” said Larkin. “Some students may be unfamiliar with using computers and emails.”

Almost 95% of the people who use Washington Literacy Center’s resources live in poverty due to not having access to basic education. Yet the center says the center says many students are able to go on and secure better jobs or continue their education after completing classes.

A person’s socioeconomic status can be a huge determining factor as to whether or not they have access to the internet or modern technology. Daily, more and more information is available on the internet by a quick Google search. Those living in poverty do not have equal access to information on the internet and modern technology. More than half of D.C. residents who earn less than $10,000 per year — nearly 30,000 people the year that data was collected — do not have an internet subscription, according to a 2015 report published by Connect D.C.

Organizations such as the Washington Literacy Center are trying to improve digital literacy within the District. The struggles of living in poverty continue to be a roadblock for some students who are looking to receive their GED or job training classes. Life stressors can take precedence over the need to study or the need to find access to a computer so that work is completed on time.

“I think motivation is a real issue for students who — like everyone else — are scared, tired of being at home, and have a host of other issues that are getting in the way of their learning,” said Evita Leonard, the interim executive director at Southeast Ministry, a social justice organization in Congress Heights.

Workers at Southeast Ministry have gone to great lengths to ensure that students are staying on track despite not having in-person classes. Since March, the organization has provided  students with three take-home packets, hired a tutor for one-on-one help, and communicated with students through text messages and Zoom meetings. Despite instructors’ efforts to keep teaching, some students have decided to no longer continue with their programs, according to Leonard.

“We have about 50 students and we have been able to keep in contact with about 25 of them,” said Leonard. “Some students’ phones have turned off, some students don’t respond to email messages and some have said, ‘I can’t do this. Let me know when you’re open again.’

Leonard suspects uncertainty on how to use technology is part of the reason why students have given up on virtual learning tools.

“There’s not only the literary and the numeracy that’s an issue, it’s also just being comfortable with computers,” she said. “You have to work away from our officers and some people live in shelters, can’t find a quiet place to study and they’ve got kids, so it’s hard,” she said.

With unemployment due to COVID-19 the highest the U.S. has seen since the Great Depression, the importance of an education is clearer than ever. 120,702 unemployment claims were filed in the District between March 13 and June 30. For some people, obtaining a GED means finally being qualified for a job that feeds their family. Education opens the door for more job opportunities, and not having an education can cause someone to be overlooked during the hiring process.

In 2018, workers with no high school diploma or GED faced an unemployment rate of 5.6%, not quite double the median unemployment rate of 3.2%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Similarly, employed workers without a high school diploma or equivalent earned an average of $553 per week, roughly half of the overall median $932 that year.

A student at Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School studies to earn her high school diploma. Photo courtesy of Academy of Hope

“Our education programs provide adults with the skills they need to reach their academic and career goals,” said Hazel Cherry, the student recruitment manager at Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School. “We support the whole learner, providing resources to fresh food, mental health services, and at the heart of our work is building community.”

Since the pandemic began, Academy of Hope has offered online classes along with laptops and internet access to those in need. Starting in August, students will have the option of online or in-person classes.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve transitioned all of our classes online across a number of innovative platforms, including Google Classroom, Zoom, and Instagram Live,” said Jamie Fragale, the director of advocacy and communications at Academy of Hope.

Instructors at Academy of Hope have a well-developed remote learning program, but many students do not have the tools to take full advantage of it.

“Approximately 75% of Academy of Hope learners do not have access to a computer or internet at home,” she said. “This of course makes it incredibly challenging for adult learners to continue to engage with classes.”

When the District transitioned to distance learning in the middle of the school year, Mayor Bowser announced the D.C. Education Equity Fund to help provide students with mobile hotspots for internet connection along with laptops and tablets. As of April 7, $1.3 million had been distributed to D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools, including $8,292 for Academy of Hope, according to the fund’s website.

Students in adult education programs are trying to set themselves up for success, but the process is delayed without proper internet connection and access to modern technology.

D.C. provides more than 600 public Wi-Fi hotspots in some health clinics and parks, all public schools and libraries, many rec, and other locations. But Emily Gasoi, a member of the District’s State Board of Education wants city leaders to combine their creativity and monetary resources to create District-wide Wi-Fi so that every family within the District can stay digitally connected.

“I wish D.C. would lead the way in becoming the first to offer truly universal access to internet and devices as if it were a utility,” Gasoi said. “I’m hoping that we can really put first the needs of those families and students who usually get the short end of the stick.”