For many students at underfunded schools, learning is already full of barriers that must be surpassed. While some students were feeling excited about classes they were in, inspired their teachers, and proud of their personal growth in early March, many others were facing countless visible and invisible battles at home and in the classroom. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced students out of schools and into online spaces, pre-existing inequities worsened to make learning far more difficult for students across Chicago, especially those in low-income communities. 70% of campers attending I Grow Chicago’s Summer of Hope camp reported that they did not enjoy doing school on the computer. 

Behind the Barrier: Online Learning

Scientific data suggests that children have already lost academic and social readiness in the time they have been out of school due to COVID-19, especially those from low-income or underserved communities.  This already difficult hurdle of missed class time, which has been shown to impact strong language skills, areas of the brain that promote social bonding, and the seeds of literacy, is made even more complicated by the speed at which educators were forced to switch their learning to an online format (Brookings).   Given this information, even if schools are able to safely open in the fall, students have already missed out on key educational and social points that will need to be accounted for in some way to allow for future successes.

A lack of socialization is easier for some students than others.  For older students dealing with bullying or school anxiety, some time to slow down could be helpful.  And younger students need their parents more than their friends, so data suggests they will be fine if they have a supportive family member at home (Atlantic).  But that’s not the case for all children.  Many families in low-income communities were worrying about meeting their basic needs even before the pandemic, and things are worse for them now.  For some children, school is the safest place, and being home in tense, frustrating circumstances may worsen the situation for those suffering from physical or emotional abuse.  Children without a guarantee of safety or routine at home are more likely to experience long-term effects from this time, and are also the least likely to be offered the resources they need to recover and move on from the missed school time.

What does this look like for our children? 

For many students, attending school on the computer is about more than the classes they’re in and the things they learn.  The way a child performs in school is impacted by many components, such as:

  • Food Insecurity:  Food insecurity, or the set of circumstances that prevents access to food, will be experienced by one in seven people in Cook County this year (Chicago Food Bank).  19% of our campers report that they do not have enough food at home.  Many children rely on their schools for one or two meals a day, and the lack of access to that food due to the COVID-19 pandemic can mean more children than ever are unsure about where their next meal will come from.
  • Access to Technology: Attending school online requires students to have access to a computer, WiFi, and often a webcam and speaker.  One camper reported doing her work on an iPad, which can be a real disadvantage for a curriculum designed for a monitor screen. Low-income families are also less likely to have stable WiFi connection, and children who rely on school or libraries to access computers are rendered disconnected by quarantine orders.
  • Home Life:  For children who are struggling with familial problems, such family members coping with legal issues or sick or elderly relatives requiring care, there can be many distractions during a day of online class that make showing up to virtual meetings much more difficult or lower priority.  28.6% of campers feel worried about having what they need, and 85.7% of campers report worrying about their families a lot. Additionally, many low income students are working from small homes or apartments, in which there are constant disturbances from siblings or other household activities.  For many families, there simply isn’t space for all family members to successfully work at home (Vox).


  • Supervision: For younger students, a parent or guardian is often necessary to help set up and supervise online correspondence or classes.  For low-income families, this can be complicated if parents are essential workers, required to be out of the home during the day in order to continue providing for their family.  There is also less access to external childcare during the pandemic, which can force parents to work less hours in order to be at home with children who would usually be in school.  Some families also speak non-English languages at home, making communication with teachers or at home academic help difficult.
  • Learning Style: Learning on the computer is inherently visual, which could make understanding new information difficult for students who are not visual learners. Only 19% of our campers learn best by seeing someone else do something.  Teachers who could normally work a student through an exercise or activity are now vastly limited in their capacity to use alternative methods.


Leaving the physical classroom also leads to loss of important developmental and social stages for students.  33% of I Grow Chicago campers do not see people who look like them in the videos they watch, which can mean school is a vital place for them to gain exposure to representation and examples of success.  Additionally, 58.3% of campers who do not enjoy doing school on the computer are in middle school, a period that serves as a key social development time for children.  Missing out on peer interactions can be difficult, and can make transitioning into high school more complicated in the future.

What does this look like for the public? 

As educators debate the pros and cons of continuing with online learning in the fall, different schools find themselves considering vastly different circumstances.  For example, Chicago’s 200 private Catholic schools have committed to reopening, as demanded by tuition paying parents. Districts with more money to allot for extra substitute teachers, enhanced cleaning processes, daily testing, and the required administrational steps to schedule distanced days for thousands of students can feel more confident in their ability to keep students and staff safe than underserved districts.

For Chicago Public Schools, this is especially daunting given that there were already issues with keeping schools clean and providing space for all students (Suntimes).  Many administrators are relying on the creativity and ingenuity of their teachers, but Chicago’s teachers are largely overwhelmed already.  

Additionally, many of the issues with online learning go beyond teachers’ capacity to fix by this fall.  Data from the past few months of online learning shows that around 1 in 10 of the poorest children in the U.S. has little or no access to technology for learning. In households earning less than $25,000 a year, 12.2% of respondents said a digital device was rarely or never available for a child to use for learning, and 9.8% said the same of the internet.

The data also shows a strong correlation to race.  8.7% of Black respondents say their children rarely or never have access to a device for learning, and 6.7% of Black respondents say there is rarely or never internet access available in their homes.  This data is higher than the full sample, which offers incredibly concerning implications.  In many school systems, low-income Black students are slipping through the cracks of online learning (Brookings).  While resources are dedicated to improving the quality of online classes for those attending them, BIPOC students who don’t have access need much more than that to succeed.

How does this operate in the long run?

The limitations facing low-income children create cycles, in which students might miss class due to a lack of internet connection, leading to them feeling behind, which can lead to less enthusiasm to complete assignments or attend following class meetings.  Educators have also reported that some families being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen out of touch completely, and cannot be reached by teachers at all (New York Times).

All of these factors contribute to the academic achievement gap that rages on in America.  For decades, this gap has referenced the stark differences between grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates amongst BIPOC and white students, but recently it has come to represent the difference between low-income and wealthier students’ successes as well.  For some students, the gap can account for up to two years of schooling, and it’s only being worsened by the move to online learning (Washington Post).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, affluent, largely white, schools have reported nearly 100% of students participating in online learning, while low-income schools populated by BIPOC students have reported more chronic absenteeism than ever before.  This is leading to many failed classes, and could result in students repeating grades when schools reopen (New York Times).  This pattern perpetuates racist stereotypes about intelligence, and prevents BIPOC students from getting the access to the resources they need to rise above the oppressive systems and achieve success.  This lack of ability to obtain education keeps families in systemic poverty.

Other ways online learning contributes to the gap include a reliance on homework.  Data shows that children from more affluent homes score better on homework because they have higher educated parents to offer help.  Children from low-income homes miss out on this.  Even if they have the resources to complete the work, more affluent students always seem to have more access to what they need to rise above and succeed.

This gap is also perpetuated by the fact that school systems are not usually set up to benefit children from low-income homes.  Research shows that the stress caused by chaotic, impoverished home environments affects brain centers involved in executive functioning, which controls things like attention, working memory, planning, reasoning, and inhibition.  This can also lead to emotional and behavioral problems, which children are often blamed for in school, rather than helped with (Greater Good).

While districts focus on preparing nurses and distanced classrooms, conversations about providing care for the students who have been suffering in online school are equally vital if educators want to work towards closing the gap.

What is I Grow Chicago doing? 

Providing tutoring and mentorship

I Grow Chicago runs Summer of Hope and Life After School, year-round children’s programming that bolsters student success by offering games, yoga and mindfulness, creative playtime, mentorship, and healthy snacks.  Children are provided with one-on-one individualized tutoring that makes them feel loved, intelligent, and respected, and which creates an environment in which they have the opportunity to grow, learn and envision all they can be and become. In addition to our six-week in-person summer camp, I Grow Chicago has offered 240 hours of remote tutoring for students in need, helping them stay on top of online learning and preventing them from falling behind in the time they are away from school. We are currently designing our fall program plan to meet the needs of our students during COVID. 

Meeting physical needs

I Grow Chicago runs a community pantry, which provides access to key items including diapers, toilet paper, soap, shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and deodorant, all of which can make home life easier and safer for a child attending online school. Over the past 20 weeks, we have delivered over 5,000 packages in our COVID frontline response. At our Summer of Hope camp, 34 children ages 5-13 are provided with lunch every day.  30% of campers reported the meals to be a favorite aspect of camp.

Sponsoring laptops and tablets

To help families struggling to provide their students with online learning equipment, I Grow Chicago has provided 25 laptops to allow students from our after school program access to their online classes and learning tools.

Black Excellence Education

Our Summer of Hope camp is centered around Black voices and Black excellence.  Each week, campers participate in activities such as exploring Black musicians and practicing music with local artists, experiencing Chicago athletes and movers, finding practices that bring them peace, learning to write and tell stories, and celebrating the excellence of the community in which they live.

How can you help?

Become a Monthly Donor

Your donation can go a long way to help low-income students overcome the challenges presented by online learning in these difficult times.  Donate to I Grow Chicago at, and consider matching the amount you or your family spends on school supplies throughout the year to help students who can’t afford it. This helps fund programs like Life After School, the community pantry, and Summer of Hope, which are helping students and families in the Englewood community on a daily, year-round basis.

Educating yourself

Systems of oppression operate best when fewer people know about them, so being an informed citizen is a vital step towards eliminating the systematic methods by which low-income communities are held down.  Read up on the ways the achievement gaps are perpetuated in the American academic system, and refuse to perpetuate them further.  Start by reading the articles linked in this post, and then

learn about the root causes of the academic achievement gap with books such as Hope and Healing in Urban Education by Shawn Ginwright, The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time by Rod Paige and Elaine Witty, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms by Tyrone C. Howard, and The Color of Mind: Why the Origins of the Achievement Gap Matter for Justice by Derrick Darby and John L. Rury.

For news and calls to action, visit Advancement Project: Education Justice.

Advocating for students

Find  your Illinois representatives here, and speak up for underserved students.  Consider asking for money spent on Chicago Public Schools’ partnership with the Chicago Police Department to be re-allocated to providing counseling, devices for online learning, food services, and tools for at home enrichment.  For a template to directly contact Chicago’s Mayor, Deputy Mayor of Education and Health, Public School CEO, and the Board of Education, click here.