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Distance learning must be accessible for all

Every Israeli child in the public education system needs a laptop or tablet, to ensure that even the lowest-income children can continue their studies during this challenging time
Illustrative. A boy's studies via laptop. (iStock)
Illustrative. A boy's studies via laptop. (iStock)

In fighting the spread of COVID-19 in Israel and throughout the world, we are also forced to face the challenges associated with the social distancing measures being implemented in order to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic. While social distancing is the medicine necessary to keep our infection rate, particularly that of the elderly and most vulnerable, at a level that can be handled by Israel’s extremely taxed hospital system, it comes at a high price – lost jobs and businesses for some, forced unpaid leave for others, and for the luckiest among us, the challenge of juggling the education of multiple kids, while attempting to somehow continue doing our jobs from home.

For the first week of Israel’s forced “Corona vacation,” a portion of Israeli children were unable to participate in the country’s giant distance learning “experiment,” not due to lack of excitement, but rather because they do not have access to a computer at home. According to the social survey and household income survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics from recent years, while 99 percent of households with children under the age of 18 have at least one cell phone, about 16% of these households do not have a computer and about a quarter do not have internet. Among Arab Israelis, about 30% do not have a computer, while about 50% do not have internet, and among non-Haredi Jews, approximately 7% of families with children under 18 do not have a computer and about 9% do not have internet.

Though many of the distance learning activities and exercises made available to children are accessible by smart phone or even television, others require a computer and thus present a challenge to equity in distance learning. Today’s unique situation highlights the more general difficulties faced by students who have to make do without access to a computer, even when things are normal. These students miss out on home, computer-based enrichment activities provided by teachers throughout the year. At the same time, because high percentages of families do own cellular phones, there is opportunity for teachers to provide assignments to children that can be sent by phone but completed off-line.  There is no doubt that teachers and families are employing great creativity in this unprecedented time period, and this creativity needs to be extended to supporting those families that may be left even further behind due to lack of tools necessary for at-home learning.

The public education system, which is intended to be a great equalizer, cannot do its job if basic educational tools are only available to certain children.  There are several countries around the world, as well as various US cities and states, that pride themselves in providing a laptop or tablet for every child in the public education system. While this would undoubtedly be an extremely costly intervention in Israel, where there are many children due to high-fertility rates, a means-tested approach could help ensure that even the lowest-income children in Israel have the opportunity to continue their studies during this challenging time. Even in times of “viral peace,” such a program would help students gain the computer skills necessary for integration into advanced industries in the labor market when they come of age.

Finally, distance learning conducted by each classroom teacher has been canceled for elementary and middle-schoolers for at least the next few weeks. Though the Ministry of Education is providing content on cable television channels based on grade level, this well-intentioned resource still misses the mark, as the vast majority of Israeli families has multiple children and not enough computers, televisions and tablets to keep up.  As such, the burden of maintaining an enriching environment for children is placed squarely on their parents.  And here, too, we encounter an equity challenge.  We know that a mother’s education level is the greatest single determinant of a child’s academic success, and that the education system presents the most promising opportunity to level the playing field.

Our new lifestyle may continue well beyond Passover, and there is no doubt in my mind that distance learning must be reinstated, particularly for the benefit of the youngest children in the education system (think first-graders who are still developing basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills). We must spring to action in these next few weeks to ensure that children are provided with the tools they need to learn so that the collateral damage of the coronavirus crisis (which will clearly be extensive) does not also include a growth in inequality for today’s children resulting from an extended lack of educational opportunity. While government might be overwhelmed at the moment with orchestrating its health and economic response to this crisis, there is an opportunity for philanthropy, and potentially even for the private sector, to get involved in meeting the immediate need of Israel’s most vulnerable school children.

About the Author
Suzanne Patt Benvenisti is the director general at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
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