Coronavirus Fight Lays Bare Education’s Digital Divide

For children of the millions of migrant laborers who work far from home to keep China’s cities cleaned and fed, another problem is a lack of supervision. These “left-behind children,” as they are called in China, are raised mostly by their grandparents, who are often illiterate and cannot help with homework even when it is not delivered via smartphone app.

Wang Dexue, an elementary school principal in hilly Yunnan Province, said that in some classes, half the students cannot participate in online lessons because their families lack the necessary hardware.

For households that can connect, parents are not always invested in helping their children with remote learning, Mr. Wang said. His teachers are still figuring out how to teach with video apps. “Teaching progresses much more slowly sometimes,” Mr. Wang said.

The virus has come at a delicate moment for China’s efforts to help its least fortunate. This is the year the Communist Party has vowed to eradicate extreme poverty. The country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has held fast to that goal despite the public health emergency. But raising people’s incomes above the level of deprivation was never going to be as tough as providing them with better educational opportunities.

China ordered all schools shut in late January, as coronavirus infections began spreading quickly. The authorities have not required schools to hold online classes in the interim. But they have encouraged it, starting all-day TV broadcasts of state-approved lessons in math, language, English, art and even physical education. The official mantra: “Stop classes but don’t stop learning.”

With no common standards for that learning, however, the results have varied wildly. Teachers have experimented with apps and formats — live streams, prerecorded lessons or a mix. Many teachers are holding web classes now but plan to go over the same material a second time when normal classes restart. For some students, distance learning means switching to different class materials than they had been using before.

“It’s a big mess, that’s all I can say,” said Huang Ting of PEER, an educational nonprofit.

This month, schools are beginning to reopen in parts of China, mostly in the country’s more sparsely populated west, where the outbreak is deemed to be under control.

For students like the Liu brothers, the disruption has been profound. They are among the best students in their class, their father says proudly.

Like many other adults in rural Anhui Province, Mr. Liu and his wife work far from home most of the year. Mr. Liu can afford another smartphone, he said, but he doesn’t want to get his sons hooked on video games. Installing home broadband so the boys can watch classes on their television, as their teacher suggested, seems like a wasteful luxury.

Still, Mr. Liu regrets that he cannot do more to help his sons learn. When he called them at home recently, he urged them to read more and practice their penmanship.

Li Xingpeng teaches at a village elementary school in the remote northwestern province of Gansu. With his phone mounted on a wobbly plastic holder and its camera pointed at a notebook, Mr. Li has been holding classes via group video chats on DingTalk, a messaging app owned by the e-commerce giant Alibaba. The experience, it is fair to say, has been mixed.

On a recent morning, Mr. Li’s 9 a.m. fourth-grade English class began with a quiz. He read out vocabulary words in Chinese, and his eight or so students wrote them down in English.

He had just read out the third word — chufang, or kitchen — when a loud conversation drifted into the call.

“Hey, whose family is watching TV?” Mr. Li said. “Turn the volume down.”

When the quiz was over, he asked the students to check their answers then read them aloud, causing the group chat to erupt in a cacophony of vocabulary: HOUSElivingroomREADeatcooklistenSITBEDROOM.

At one point, one student disappeared from the call. She later messaged the group to say her phone had crashed. But by then, class was over.

Fifth-grade math was next. As Mr. Li went through the multiples of two and five, the video chat was filled with loud scraping sounds and electronic buzzing. He explained odd and even numbers to a screen full of bored stares. One student experimented with turning his webcam on and off, on and off, on and off.

Mr. Li knows that some of his students use such lousy phones that the video chats are a fog of pixels. But the deeper problem, he said, might be that many parents do not care about their young ones’ schooling. That goes for poorer families and better-off ones alike.

Some parents, he said, are even annoyed that their children use their phones to join online classes. Why? Because they — the parents — cannot spend as much time on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

In the mountains of Gansu, the parenting tends to be “free range,” Mr. Li said. He sighs.

Recently, Mr. Li became concerned when one of his fifth-graders, a boy named Xie Dong, didn’t join his online classes two days in a row.

Mr. Li first called Dong’s grandmother to ask after his whereabouts, but she didn’t pick up her phone. The boy’s mother works in Xi’an, a city 180 miles to the east. Eventually, Mr. Li found out through a neighbor that Dong had grown frustrated trying to download DingTalk on his family’s $100 smartphone and gave up.

Of all Mr. Li’s students, Dong worries him the most.

“If he doesn’t do better in school and doesn’t have anybody watching over him, just think of how bad things could get in the future,” Mr. Li said.

Wang Yiwei contributed research.

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