It’s a problem that many educators have been grappling with for years, but one that has been exacerbated—and made more public—by COVID-19: Many students lack sufficient internet connections at home to be able to complete their schoolwork.
Educators and digital equity advocates have tried a number of solutions to close the so-called “homework gap,” from deploying mobile hotspots to getting help from local businesses, but the problem has persisted. And then it finally erupted in March, when schools across the U.S. closed with little warning.
In a matter of days, the “homework gap” widened to a full-fledged learning gap, as computers and internet connections soared to the top of the list of required school supplies and districts made hasty plans to roll out virtual learning.
What that disparity has revealed about the education inequities in our country, according to Common Sense Media’s CEO Jim Steyer, is “a national disgrace.”
“Millions and millions of kids … don’t even have the basic essentials of what they need to be students during this time,” Steyer said during a virtual town hall hosted on Tuesday by his nonprofit. “Even as we move toward returning to school this summer and in the fall, we have an imperative to offer kids the opportunities they deserve.”
COVID-19 did not create the digital divide for students, added Robin Lake, the panel moderator and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which is based out of the University of Washington and has been tracking school districts’ transitions to distance learning. But the pandemic did force us to “stare [the problem] right in the eye.”
Aleesia Johnson, the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, described the abruptness of the closures as akin to a switch being flipped.
“You were in school one day, and the very next you were gone,” she explained. “You didn’t have any runway” to prepare.
Johnson said that before March, her district had about one device for every three students, “which, during school hours, worked fine.” But when students were forced to attend classes from their homes, the district learned that many needed school-issued devices to get online and at least 30 percent did not have access to high-speed internet in their homes. Many students were trying to log in and participate from their cell phones.
Indianapolis Public Schools distributed devices to students who lacked them, then ordered 1,500 mobile hotspots for those who also lacked reliable internet access. There were some delays, since so many other districts were trying to do the same thing simultaneously, but they were eventually able to get students what they needed, Johnson said.
The digital divide, like so many issues in the U.S., is “particularly egregious for folks of color,” said John King, Jr., the former Secretary of Education under the Obama administration and current president and CEO of the Education Trust.
Before COVID-19, Pew Research found that 25 percent of black teens had been unable to do their homework because of barriers to internet access at home, and 21 percent had used public Wi-Fi to do homework for the same reasons. That’s compared to 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively, for all U.S. teens.
Source: Pew Research Center
“If folks can’t get on the internet, they can’t get their work done for class,” King noted.
Meanwhile, because people of color are overrepresented in jobs considered “essential” during the economic shutdown, some reports estimate that only one in five Black Americans and one in six Latinos are able to work from home during COVID-19. This means more Black and Latino students are trying to get their school work done in homes without parents present during the day to help supervise or hold their kids accountable, King said.
The digital divide impacts more than homework and grades, King explained. It has reverberations throughout the higher education and workforce pipelines, too. Students use the internet to research prospective colleges, apply to them, file for federal financial aid and scholarships, apply to jobs and internships, and more.
Because of that, access to the internet can be the difference between a student continuing or breaking the cycle of poverty in their family, Johnson noted. “We have to broaden our thinking about how technology is being leveraged in our homes,” she said.
In an effort to address the digital divide, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act in May, which includes the Emergency Connectivity Fund that would provide $1.5 billion for schools and libraries to buy computers, tablets and hotspots for their students during the pandemic. The Senate has not yet acted on the legislation. “We need those dollars,” King said, as well as additional investment from Congress to support students’ social-emotional and mental health needs and to address learning loss.
King suggested three other steps education leaders can take to close the digital divide.
First, superintendents need to be laser-focused on equity and making sure every student under their purview—regardless of race, income, ZIP code or otherwise—has access to the internet in the fall.
Second, district leaders should be “surveying, surveying, surveying,” to understand how parents experienced the spring distance learning experiment, whether they still lack sufficient devices or broadband connectivity, and whether they need additional technical support.
Finally, he said, districts should use the summer months to theirs and their students’ advantage. “Let’s not waste the next couple of months to address lost learning,” King said. He pointed out a tutoring initiative in Tennessee that pairs college students with K-6 students as an exemplar of what could be and needs to be done.