Low-income student tries to commit suicide because of insufficient technology for online lessons during COVID-19

Society & Culture

A middle-school student in Henan Province tried to end her life by overdosing on her mother’s prescription drugs after her studies were seriously disrupted because she lacked the digital devices necessary to take classes online. Per the Beijing News (in Chinese), the distressed ninth grader, whose parents have serious disabilities, is the middle child of three sisters living in extreme poverty.

Defined by local authorities as a low-income household, the girl’s family only owned one cell phone, which allowed the sisters to take classes at home when their schools were closed in response to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Prior to the teenager’s suicide attempt, the girls frequently fought over their family’s only digital device, which they all needed to access online education portals.

On February 29, when the oldest sister was about to pass the phone on to her middle sibling for an online exam, she found her sister had taken an excessive amount of mental health drugs prescribed for their mother.

The oldest sister took the middle schooler to a hospital immediately, and she is currently in stable condition. After news of the near tragedy came to light, the girl’s school and some of her relatives together donated two cell phones to the family, according to the local office of poverty alleviation. The local government also made a cash donation of 5,000 yuan ($715) to the family, along with some electronic devices and daily essentials.

To cope with the coronavirus outbreak, China has imposed various forms of travel restrictions that have stranded students all around the country, leaving them unable to return to campus. An increasing number of schools have embraced online learning. This has resulted in many low-income students in rural areas — perhaps for the first time in their life — sitting in the same classroom with their urban counterparts, virtually at least.

But it’s evident that this push toward technology-based education is not benefiting everyone. Disadvantaged students who lack the resources needed to participate in online learning are actually being left behind.

After media reported on the middle schooler’s attempted suicide, the Education Ministry in Hunan issued a statement on March 2, saying that it would initiate a “sweeping investigation” into the extent to which this digital divide exists across the province. It also vowed to establish a series of policies and subsidies to close the gap between the technological haves and have nots.