In March 2020, schools across the United States shuttered their doors to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Although educators posted lessons online, the inequities for rural and low-income students quickly became apparent. Without access to a computer or reliable internet connections at home, students in many school districts tried to complete schoolwork on a cellphone – or didn’t complete it at all.
Over 20% of parents said their children wouldn’t be able to do schoolwork because they didn’t have access to a computer at home, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center. The numbers were even higher among low-income families. In the survey, 36% said they didn’t have a computer for children to use.
In part, the problem is the inability of school districts to get devices into students’ hands. While nearly 85% of urban districts planned to distribute laptops, tablets or similar devices to students, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, only 43.2% of rural districts could say the same. And in those rural districts, many students don’t have access to reliable internet service. For example, Cloudland High School in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, estimated that one-fifth of its students were in remote areas without high-speed internet and only spotty cellphone service.
Although the digital divide among students isn’t new, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid it bare for the broader public to finally see, appreciate and – with the help of low-cost computing devices, free internet and cloud-based e-learning solutions – do something about it.
First: Computers and Connectivity
When it comes to the digital divide, technology is a paradox. It’s a problem and the solution, and this has been especially true during the pandemic, according to Trent Sharp, a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which conducts education-equity research.
“Challenging times such as these create space for innovations that can expand access and opportunity,” Sharp wrote in a September 2020 article for AIR.
“At the same time, there is concern that COVID-19 will further entrench inequalities that have plagued our country for generations. The last few months have clearly shown that technology will play a pivotal role in determining which path we take.”