COVID-19 school closures have exposed the equity problems in America’s schools in terms of student access to computers and high-speed broadband internet at home. This “digital divide” has been spotlighted by not just educational trades, but mainstream media:
- If you’re even a casual consumer of news, you’ve seen the viral photos of students in a Taco Bell parking lot using their Wi-Fi to do their schoolwork.
- A New York Times story on North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools is emblematic of public districts around the country. Guilford County Schools ordered 66,000 computers over this past summer, but 4,000 students still had to start the school year remotely with no school-issued computer due to a nationwide laptop shortage.
- This laptop shortage means 4.4 million households with children don’t have consistent access to computers for online learning during the pandemic.
- As many as 15 million of the US’s 50.7 million public school students currently lack adequate internet connectivity at home.
That’s just a sampling. As the article, “Internet Access Is a Civil Rights Issue” published in the September 2020 issue of Education Week says, “All it takes is a nationwide crisis to underline the most glaring equity issues our society faces.”
Students without access to technology at home are falling behind. By and large the populations affected by this “digital divide” live in rural, and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. Many of these students are minorities.
- 40% of students in households that make less than $20,000.00 a year don’t have access to a computer.
- 59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes say their child may face digital obstacles when it comes to completing their schoolwork remotely.
- 25% of rural Americans say they don’t have access to high-speed internet—this is regardless of socioeconomic level—many rural areas are simply not wired to support broadband connections.
- A June 2020 Report by McKinsey estimated lower-income students would lose twice as many months of learning compared to students who come from homes with an average or higher income, based on the assumption that all instruction returns to in-person by January 2021. The report indicates that the loss of learning due to inequity will have lasting impacts on our country.
Looking at the issue more broadly, a lack of access to computers and internet does more than disrupt students’ ability to complete their schoolwork, it also impacts their ability to research and apply to college, find part-time jobs, and even receive communications from school districts regarding reopening plans, progress updates, and other school-related news.
In other words, in today’s technology-driven world, the lack of access to broadband and personal devices is impeding students' opportunities to get ahead.
While COVID-19 has shown a bright spotlight on this “digital divide”, it’s hardly a new issue. Per Education Week, “this technology challenge has been staring us in the face for decades.”
Prior to the pandemic:
- 3 million students across the country were unable to complete their homework due to their inability to access either a computer or broadband connectivity at home.
- 21.3 million people had no access to broadband internet.
- 20% of rural youth lacked access to broadband at home.
- Teens without high-speed internet access were less confident about graduating high school and going on to postsecondary studies.
Alarming numbers. So why hasn’t this divide hadn’t been mitigated over the last few years? Many experts point to two contributing factors, the lack of universal access to broadband, and how our public K-12 schools are funded. Both factors are complex, systematic issues that will take time to resolve. As the pandemic has exposed these inequities, it has also spurred groups outside of education to find solutions.
Over the past year, non-profits were founded specifically to get internet access to those who don’t have it, emergency funds were granted to schools to buy laptops, and broadband companies began offering free services to families in need during the pandemic. While these actions are a step in the right direction, they represent a band-aid fix on much larger issues requiring massive infrastructural changes.
The inequity around students’ access to technology is a complicated, multi-layered issue that will take all of us working together to address. We need to be more vigilant about how school district funds are spent. Ensuring funds are spent on computer and broadband access should become a top priority for the Department of Education. Providing all Americans access to high-speed broadband should be a major federal initiative. We need to lobby and advocate for these types of changes in order to begin leveling the playing field for all students in our education system.
Investing in equitable access is investing in our nation’s future. Until every student in the US has access to modern computers and high-speed internet, our public education system isn’t an equitable one.
This is the third blog in our series “The Changing Role of Technology in Education.”