Nearly a Year Into Remote Learning ‘Digital Divide’ Persists as Key Educational Threat, as Census Data Show 1 in 3 Households Still Struggling With Limited Tech Access
Mariah Hawkins aspires to embark on a career as a nurse.
At the age of 15, she is currently in the 9th grade at iLEAD Academy, a prestigious regional high school in northern Kentucky. This school offers college-level courses that prepare students for the rapidly growing fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In recognition of its commitment to academic excellence, iLEAD Academy recently received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Tech Challenge.
However, despite her ambitions and dedication, Hawkins is plagued by a fear of failure. It’s not because she finds the coursework too challenging, but rather because she lacks reliable access to the internet.
"I have always maintained excellent grades throughout my academic journey, consistently earning all A’s and occasionally a B if I encountered significant difficulties," Hawkins shared. "But now, I find myself with a low D or even an F in algebra. If I had consistent access to the internet, I am confident that I could bring my grades back up. The main obstacle I face is being unable to submit my work properly due to my extremely poor WiFi connection."
Unfortunately, Hawkins is not alone in her struggle. A recent report released by UCLA reveals that nearly one in three American households faced limited computer or internet access in the fall, even after more than six months of the pandemic. This report, based on surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, highlights a persistent issue. Just as before the coronavirus crisis, students from minority backgrounds, low-income households, and those whose parents have a high school education or less are disproportionately affected by the digital divide. This divide makes it significantly more difficult for them to access their classes, engage with their peers, and complete their assignments.
Dr. Paul M. Ong, the director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA and the report’s author, explained, "While each individual barrier may not seem insurmountable on its own, the cumulative effect eventually leaves certain students behind."
The report reveals that access to functional devices and the internet improved slightly in September and the beginning of October as more students returned to physical school buildings. However, with the recent surge in coronavirus cases, several significant school districts have once again closed their buildings, leading to a renewed emphasis on the issue of internet access.
As millions of students continue to rely on remote learning from home, the grades for this fall indicate that many students, like Hawkins, are encountering significant difficulties. In Houston, for example, 42 percent of students received at least one failing grade. In Fairfax County, Virginia, the percentage of middle school students with two or more failing grades has tripled, with Hispanic students, students with disabilities, students learning English, and those from low-income households being hit the hardest.
In December, there were discussions in Congress about providing funding to help students from low-income households access the internet, but negotiations fell through. Despite bipartisan support, the final $900 billion pandemic relief bill did not include funding to support the estimated 12 million children who have little or no internet access.
"The pandemic did not create the homework gap," insisted Noelle Ellerson Ng, of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. "Instead, it revealed a problem that was already present but had been overlooked. Now, it is in the spotlight, yet somehow still being ignored."
To address this urgent issue, states and school districts have implemented various temporary measures. Some districts have deployed WiFi-enabled buses in neighborhoods with limited internet access. In early December, Connecticut became the first state to provide a "learning device" to every student. They accomplished this by utilizing $24 million in philanthropic support and $43.5 million from the state’s CARES Act funding. However, the challenge lies in scaling these initiatives. In the case of New York City, for example, where more than 60,000 students still lack devices even eight months into the crisis, the 141,000 laptops acquired by Connecticut would only benefit 12.5 percent of the city’s students.
Ong’s report primarily focuses on the issue of limited access, rather than its direct effects. However, the implications are evident and concerning. The report indicates that students in households without consistent computer access have less interaction with their teachers and engage in homework less frequently, highlighting the likelihood of learning loss.
She divides her time between her divorced parents, residing in two different locations. Her mother’s house is situated in a remote rural area where no internet service provider offers coverage. On the other hand, her father’s house has internet, but it is so slow that it might as well not exist. In an attempt to solve this problem, her mother paid $400 for a wireless hotspot from her school. However, to her dismay, the hotspot is unable to detect any signal, rendering it useless.
Consequently, she frequently encounters difficulties in accessing the live lectures delivered by her teachers through video during the closure of the school building. Moreover, she often faces obstacles in uploading her completed assignments.
Jenna Gray, the director of the school, is fully aware of the challenges that Hawkins is confronted with. Gray emphasizes that they will collaborate with her to find suitable solutions. However, in the meantime, Hawkins worries that she is falling behind in the school’s ambitious pursuit of having students obtain an associate’s degree by the time they graduate from high school.
"There are nights when I can’t help but cry because, as I mentioned, I have never received an F grade before," she expressed. "This situation is very risky for me."
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