By Nathan Layne
YORK, Pa. (Reuters) - Natalie Cruz, 12, missed math and language arts instruction one recent morning because the school's virtual interface would not load. Carlos, her 8-year-old brother, sat beside her at the kitchen table, studying with last year's workbooks because the district had yet to supply him with a PC, weeks after instruction started online.
Across town, Zachary and Zeno Lentz, 5 and 9, were at their high-performing elementary schools, where they attend in-person on Tuesdays and Fridays. They learn remotely the other three days, assisted by their college-educated mother, a social worker who can do her job from home.
The Cruz and Lentz children are separated by just a few miles in York, Pennsylvania. But they are a world apart in educational opportunities, a gap education experts say has widened amid the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
Belen Cruz, a single mother and nurse, is most worried about Natalie, who has learning difficulties and would benefit from in-person support. The mother can't afford a tutor and on weekdays usually leaves both children with her parents, who don't speak English well, while she works at a nursing home.
"I think she will be behind," Cruz said, sitting in her two-bedroom row home in a working-class neighborhood.
Her children's schools are in the York City district, whose student population, about half Latino and one-third Black, scores well below average on the state's standardized proficiency exams. The Lentz family lives in the predominantly white York Suburban district, which boasts above-average scores on the tests.
Across the United States, the disparities between poor and affluent districts are growing as school boards face increased costs from the pandemic - including technology for remote learning and safety measures such as cleaning - at a time of declining tax revenues. Students in urban school districts, including York, are also more likely to see in-person learning halted because of higher levels of coronavirus spread in more densely populated areas.
In Clearwater, Florida volunteers are delivering food to children who rely on school cafeteria meals. In Salt Lake City, Utah a laptop shortage meant one out of every seven students didn't log on for the first week of class. In Salinas, California a picture of two young children using the free Wifi outside a Taco Bell went viral, bringing attention to the 17 million students nationwide who lack internet access at home.
The financially struggling York City School District has cut or furloughed more than 100 people, including dozens of teachers, and ended its performing arts program. The cuts reflected a confluence of factors, including statewide cuts in funding and spending constraints placed on the district as it works through a state-supervised financial recovery program.
York Suburban, which has fewer students with high needs and a stronger balance sheet, has made no such cuts.
"That's some of the fundamental unfairness that exists in the way schools are funded, and urban districts in our state are poorly funded," said Brian Ellis, principal of York Suburban High School. "We are very fortunate."
At a September 23 school board meeting, York City Superintendent Andrea Berry said an additional 2,000 iPads would be distributed by Oct. 2, ensuring that each student will have a device, rather than just one per household.
Berry said in an interview that schedules have been arranged with a mix of live and recorded material so that siblings sharing one PC can access lessons. The unequal schooling of city and suburban students, she said, was not unique to York.
"Any time you go to an urban city district, you are going to see disparity, inequity, poverty, lack of funding," she said. "That's the story of urban districts."
HISTORY OF SEGREGATION
Established in the 1950's, the York Suburban School District wraps around a large swathe of York City, with its lines drawn in a contorted shape that captures wealthy patches surrounding the urban core. Split-level homes on cul-de-sacs and well-maintained churches dot the landscape, and students attend school in upgraded facilities.
The city has preserved some of its early-American charm, with century-old row homes like the Cruz's, but decades of economic hardship and underinvestment have left pockets of blight. Racial tensions, which engulfed the city in riots in the late 1960s, resurfaced during the national uprising sparked by George Floyd's death in late May at the hands of Minneapolis police. Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown York demanding racial and social justice.
Lauri Lebo, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the inequities in York can be traced to the "white flight" from cities to the suburbs, starting in the 1950s and 1960s, in the wake of national laws to end racial segregation.
"A lot of it is systemic racism, and also the way we deal with poverty in the country," said Lebo, a former journalist who has written extensively about education and racial issues in York.
Amid a summer of uncertainty over the virus, York City decided to begin school in the fall with remote-only learning. Like many other U.S. cities, it had higher levels of community infection and students' families - many headed by essential workers - were more likely to be directly impacted by COVID-19 than suburban households.
York Suburban employed a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, while the neighboring Central York district, also predominantly white, offers five days in school. Wealthier families and districts are also far better equipped to adapt to online learning, if parents choose it, with higher levels of technology in homes and schools and parents who more often can choose to work from home.
Penn State University researchers who studied reopening plans across the state found that a majority of white students had the option to choose in-person schooling while a majority of Black and Hispanic students lived in online-only districts.
For Maleny Delgado, a York City parent who wanted her three children to go to school five days a week, the district's last- minute switch to all remote learning was a gut punch. Her 9-year old son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and struggles to concentrate in an online environment, she said.
"Because we live in the city, we get treated like we are in the ghettos," she said. "We are always going to be less."
Pennsylvania has among the nation's biggest spending gaps among school systems, with the richest district outspending the poorest one by as much as three-to-one per student. That stems in large part from the state covering a smaller share of education costs than almost any other, leaving local districts, with widely varying tax bases, to shoulder the rest.
York City fares better than some districts with disadvantaged populations - and actually spends slightly more, per student, than York Suburban. But that doesn't mean it's students are getting an equal education, because the city students' needs are so much higher. The district has a much higher proportion of students in poverty than its suburban counterpart, and also serves more special needs students. A quarter of students are learning English as a second language.
York City's median household income is $30,000, with a poverty rate of about 35 percent. York Suburban's median household income is $68,000, with a poverty rate below 8 percent.
In 2016, the state passed a law aimed at allocating education funds more equally among districts. But in a compromise, the formula was applied only to incremental increases in funding because of political resistance to reducing state funding to any district.
If the formula were applied to all state educational funding, York City would annually receive $54.8 million more, an increase of nearly 80 percent from the current level, estimates Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which is suing the state to address such funding gaps.
In June, the York City school board approved a $155.8 million budget incorporating more than $6 million in cuts, prompting the York Dispatch to warn that the district was "trapped in a death spiral."
The picture looks much different in York Suburban. The district had distributed PCs widely in recent years, putting it in a good position to ensure all students had them when the pandemic hit, Superintendent Timothy Williams said.
"York City has so many other fires to put out. Academics is like a backburner," said Cristina Lentz, who was a social worker in York City schools for three years before resigning in 2019.
Lentz, who now works for a behavioral health organization, is happy with how York Suburban is handling the pandemic. On a recent afternoon, her son Zachary walked out of the gleaming Yorkshire Elementary School keen to talk about baseball and his favorite subject: recess.
For his days at home, Zachary's teacher has prepared packets of work for each day, Lentz said, and his class is building up to using the Chromebooks that have been procured for each child.
"I worried so much about him and how he would do, and he is just blowing me away with the things he's doing and remembering," she said as she picked up Zachary from school. "I know he is definitely benefiting from coming in here."
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in York, Pennsylvania; additional reporting by Rachel Wisniewski in York; Editing by Brian Thevenot)