E-Learning Across the Globe: COVID-19 Unravels Environmental Inequities

First-year student Son Hoang Pham was preparing for his finals at the University of Chicago when he opened his email inbox to find the unthinkable: due to COVID-19’s spread, the university had cancelled in-person classes and urged international students to leave the United States as soon as possible. The shocking magnitude of environmental inequities was about to be laid bare

Unexpected Heat 

On March 19, Hoang found himself in Ho Chi Minh city after six months abroad. The city braced itself for the second-hottest month in the year. Though the Saigon-native was no stranger to scorching temperatures, he was surprised by Vietnam’s weather conditions, which have become increasingly erratic and extreme in recent years.

In April, a report by Vietnam’s Meteorological and Hydrological Administration would confirm what locals had suspected—2020 would see historic heat waves sweeping the country, bringing temperatures to record-breaking highs.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese citizens living or studying in COVID-19’s pandemic centres are ushered, upon arrival, into quarantine facilities without air-conditioning, and in some cases, no proper ventilation and inadequate running water. Though such facilities are integral to the country’s effective coronavirus fight, concentrated living conditions heighten the challenges of transitioning to a more climate-vulnerable environment for college and high school students studying abroad. 

Quarantine facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where environmental inequities have been revealed.
Quarantine facilities in Duong, Vietnam, where Hoang was placed for 18 days in the sweltering heat | Image by Son Hoang Pham

Unmasked Environmental Inequities 

The United States’ elite colleges and boarding schools are mostly situated in environmentally-friendly locations conducive to higher education. The air quality is good and climate vulnerability is low. Students live and study together on campus or in surrounding neighbourhoods, more or less insulated, at least for the time being, from environmental risks. 

“I totally took for granted how good the learning environment was [at Phillips Exeter],” Smaiyl Makyshov, a resident of Almaty, Kazakhstan and student at a boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, told Climate Tracker. “We never had to worry.” 

As schools move to remote learning, however, masked environmental inequities among diverse student bodies become exposed. Aside from economic inequality, which has been extensively reported upon, environmental injustice also begins to unravel. 

The disparity is most apparent among international student communities, with many members hailing from the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. Air quality also varies vastly worldwide, as developing countries have much laxer regulations than the United States.

Challenges to E-Learning 

Though quarantine confines most students to indoor settings, brick walls do not keep environmental risks outside.

For Hoang, temperatures in Vietnam’s quarantine facility in Binh Duong made any school work extremely difficult for the 18 days he was confined there. While his peers halfway across the globe tended to assignments, Hoang struggled to stay focused.

“The heat was an incessant torment,” Hoang said, listing it as one of the major factors affecting his concentration. Aside, of course, from the fear of contracting the disease from other detainees and unsanitary restrooms. During his stay at the facility, daily average high temperatures varied from 35 to 41 degrees Celsius.

To make matters worse, Hoang had a final exam he had to study for while in quarantine camp. “I had two finals: one of which was cancelled and the other got delayed until I came home,” he said. “Technically speaking, I had a lot of free time on my hands to prepare for all of those things, but it was very challenging to fully put my mind to any of them.”

Unlike Hoang, Makyshov was not confined to a quarantine facility upon returning to Kazakhstan. However, his e-learning experience was also affected by environmental risks.

Makyshov mentioned Almaty’s air qualitygenerally exceeding permissible levels of pollution—as his biggest concern. Kazakhstan does not have any specific national air quality policy, while three major thermal power plants operate within a 6-kilometre radius of his home. 

“I could see the difference in smog and smoke levels [between home and school] right when I got back,” Makyshov said. Though Makyshov’s school had been lenient with e-learning requirements, the transition to a more polluted environment still took its toll.

Crowded Quarters

Aside from disparities in climate and air quality, students cited population density as another urban environmental concern during COVID-19 season. 

Anishta Khan, a junior at John Hopkins University who finished her semester back home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, spoke of the challenges of living in the world’s most densely populated season. With 33,800 people per square kilometre —20 times New York’s density—Dhaka struggles to maintain a two-meter social distance for its residents outside of their homes. 

Dhaka, Bangladesh, where environmental inequities have been revealed

Dhaka, Bangladesh, has topped the world’s cities in population density for four years in a row, according to Demographia World Urban Areas and the Dhaka Tribune. | Image by Anishta Khan


“While my friends’ lockdown experience in American suburbia or even some cities might include runs around the neighbourhood, my family has deemed it unsafe to leave the house because of the population density,” Khan shared. “As an active person, I have found these constraints detrimental to my learning experience.”

International students are not the only ones feeling the difference between their home environments and school, however. Even within the United States, there are major differences in environmental risk from district to district, town to town and state to state

These disparities are expected to become more apparent in the following month, as flood season hits the Mississippi River and California enters its wildfire season. 

Looking Ahead: Future Risks 

Though environmental factors may not affect their current e-learning experience, students in more vulnerable states are starting to brace for a potentially more devastating cycle of extreme weather events. 

Erin McCann, a high school junior in Menlo Park, California, shared, “I haven’t had a chance to think about wildfires with everything going on…but there will definitely be fewer firefighters and increased probability of wildfires due to climate change.”

Additionally, McCann mentioned the lack of federal aid as another added risk factor this year. 

As schools around the U.S. consider extending remote learning to fall term 2021, differing environmental risks in students’ homes—and how these might change come September– need to be taken into consideration for policy-making.