Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Spain’s digital divide leaving impoverished youth behind

At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, we were told about how the virus would not discriminate. We indeed saw several high-profile names here in Spain, from Begoña Gómez, the wife of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to professional football players, test positive for the virus. However, it quickly became apparent that it would be those at the lower rungs of the social ladder who would be hit hardest by the pandemic.

Not just in Spain, this has been the case across the globe. With little to zero job security, many have been forced to spend hours in public transport to get to work or driving across cities delivering our amazon and UPS orders, forgoing their own welfare in order to feed their own families. El País recently published a photograph of plantation workers in Murcia, southeast Spain, clustered together without any sort of face protection as they collected the latest harvest.

The great divide

This inequality has not been felt by adults alone here in Spain: it has now filtered quickly down to its children. At a stage of life where one should be oblivious to class divide, the closure of schools across the country has seen children from lower-income families fall behind at an alarming rate.

Schools, society’s great leveler, have gone digital and classes and materials are now being provided online, thus widening the divide between the haves and have nots.

The Ministry of Education estimates that approximately 10% of the 8.2 million students in Spain are unable to follow classes online. However, according to El País, in the Catalan and Valencian communities this number is actually closer to 15%, while parents in Andalusian cities like Seville, Granada and Jaen claim that this figure is 20%.

The latest announcement that schools in Spain will remain closed until September means students will now be without a structured classroom environment for close to six months. For children of poorly educated parents with very little resources, be it financial or technological, this learning void will be detrimental to their physical and cognitive development. “There will be a gap and we don’t know if we will be able to patch it,” says Miguel Molina, a sixth-grade primary school teacher near Alcalá de Henares.

I ask Miguel about how this confinement will have affected children who live in small apartments. “The big cities like Madrid and Barcelona are going to be feel it particularly,” he says before alluding to the effect that the tension at home can cause: “Children need to play with other children and the relationships with adults, the tensions they see in their daily life at home, especially those whose parents are out of work, will affect them.”

Pressurised environments

Living in small spaces with restless children and bills to be paid, these are testing times for parents. For many, the main priority right now is the next meal and making ends meet, and education will almost certainly suffer as a result. A back garden to run around in or an online private tutor to occupy the kids are not an option for these families and the pressure continues to simmer.

Apart from being an environment where students of all backgrounds learn together with equal treatment, many schools in Spain also provide subsidised meals, a vital source of healthy nutrition and with the closure of schools, dietary needs will almost certainly be compromised for many lower-income families.

In an interview with El Confidencial, María del Carmen Morillas, who lives in a 60 metres squared flat with her husband and four daughters in Leganés, South Madrid, spoke about the difficulty facing families who have a limited number of technological resources. “We live the digital divide every day. We only have one PC for the five of us. It’s in our bedroom and we have to take turns.”

Noelia Otero, head of studies at a bilingual school in Madrid’s well-to-do Chamberí district describes how “80% of the school’s students are doing well during this time, but 20% are lacking because they don’t have a computer and Wi-Fi and because their families can’t give them a hand with skills like English.”

The fallout

Pablo Gracia, sociologist and researcher at Trinity College Dublin, tells El País that confinement is going to significantly widen the educational gap. “It is going to affect the academic performance and cognitive skills of children from poorer families, especially in language and mathematics.” With the country already below the overall OECD PISA results average, Spain has a lot of catching up to do when classes resume in the Autumn.

In an interview with El País, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Education Directorate, spoke about he envisages the state of play when children return to school. “In September the learning environment and classroom environment will be more diverse than any other year. There will be students who return enthusiastic, with many online learnings that will have enriched them, thanks to the support of their families. Others will arrive unmotivated and that is the challenge, to increase school reinforcement for these children.”

The Spanish government, meanwhile, has made a rather flimsy attempt to close the learning gap by collaborating with national television channel RTVE, who are now offering five hours of educational content for children between the age of nine and 14 on a daily basis. This is a band-aid solution to a glaring societal issue which reverts back to the basic idea of equality.

While more affluent families will be able to recuperate lost time quicker through extracurricular activities, history has shown us that those left behind from an early age tend to fall through the cracks in later years.

While the recent release from strict confinement after 42 days came as a welcome relief, and the sight and sounds of children playing on the streets again was a psychological boost for everyone in Spain, this period has shown us just how quickly the digital transformation has left the less fortunate behind.

For governments striving for greater societal equality it begs the question, should internet access now be a right for all citizens? Because without it, as we are currently seeing, there is no equality.

Irish - living in Madrid. Write about Spain, its cities and culture; real people and places; current affairs. Supporter of real journalism.

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