With schools closed and online learning in full swing, fault lines in the digital space have begun to emerge in the harsh light of the pandemic.
Since April 8, as part of circuit breaker measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, students in Singapore have been engaged in full-time home-based learning (HBL), which requires the use of laptops or tablets.
The Government, schools, community groups and stores have seen a corresponding surge in demand for electronic devices.
According to figures provided by the Ministry of Education, about 12,500 laptops or tablets, as well as 1,200 Internet-enabling devices, such as dongles, have been loaned to students who do not have enough devices at home for HBL.
HBL, which applies to students in all schools and institutes of higher learning, comprises a mix of online and offline learning.
This typically includes e-learning via the Student Learning Space (SLS) platform and completing workbooks and worksheets. A small number of students, who are unable to stay home for HBL, are allowed to go to school.
However, observers say that the rich-poor gap highlighted by Covid-19 may go beyond the digital divide. This is especially if schools stay closed for longer, as the coronavirus continues its rampage across the global economy.
Besides the availability of devices, there are other factors that determine the extent to which children can reap the benefits of HBL.
These include the physical environment, parental skills and connectivity issues, says Professor Lim Sun Sun, who teaches communication and technology at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
For example, a child who has his own room may find it easier to concentrate on HBL, while three children sharing one laptop in the living room may have more difficulty focusing on the assignments.
In addition, parents working from home "need to be on hand to help their children address technical glitches", says Prof Lim, a Nominated Member of Parliament who heads SUTD's humanities, arts and social sciences department.
E-learning requires negotiating passwords, working on different interfaces and uploading completed homework, for instance.
In addition, better-off parents have the option of paying for online tuition, which could boost HBL for their children.
Dr Stephanie Chok, assistant director of research and programme development at Beyond Social Services, a charity that serves low-income households, notes that Covid-19 affects poor families disproportionately.
Volunteer-run free tuition sessions for needy families, for example, have ground to a halt during the circuit breaker period. Voicing her fears, Dr Chok says: "Inequalities will likely widen since work in low-paid sectors, such as the service sector, has been badly affected.
"There is increased competition for such jobs yet also heightened instability... Many of the people we support also tend to be part-time or casual workers, who are often the first to be dismissed, or asked to take no-pay leave."
Without intervention on a societal scale, the inequalities that have surfaced are likely to worsen, says sociologist Teo You Yenn, whose best-selling book, This Is What Inequality Looks Like (2018), helped propel inequality to the forefront of policy discussions.
Associate Professor Teo, head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, says: "Some of these fault lines are along socio-economic lines. The question of equipment and Internet access is perhaps the most easily resolved (as devices are being supplied by various groups). But beyond this, children have uneven access to space, tech support and help with schoolwork.
"The longer this goes on, the more the gap will widen because when the kids return to school, those who are already behind may have fallen even further behind.
"Moreover, the global economic impact of the crisis will likely have long-term consequences for inequalities across families... We may see a rise in the number of youth who need to leave school and start work sooner to support their families. In contrast, youth whose family incomes allow may decide to stay in school longer, rather than enter a poor job market."
In the long term, she says, this could widen educational attainment and income inequalities within the same age cohort.
The Sunday Times examines how HBL has highlighted differences in the study environments in three families from different economic backgrounds. From families with enough resources to look into imparting other life skills during this period, to those struggling to optimise studying in a cramped flat, they are all doing the best they can.