Reopening America Won’t Fix the Educational Digital Divide

The pandemic laid bare our digital inequities

Almost overnight, millions of children, their teachers, and schools were told to shift to distance learning. No one asked if they were ready. Certainly, no one outside the education system checked but, for the health and safety of a nation facing a pandemic, they were asked to stop gathering in packed classrooms and use whatever technology they had on hand to continue learning online.

Two children watching a classroom on a large TV screen
 Lifewire / Catherine Song

The early going was rough. In California, they were short hundreds of thousands of laptops and an estimated 1.2 million students didn’t even have Internet access. And there were similar stories of inadequate or non-existent equipment and inability to afford broadband, or no viable connectivity options at all. Many schools weren’t prepared for distance learning curriculums and infrastructures, or the teachers weren’t properly trained on how to teach online.

While the circumstances were extreme—no one envisioned a pandemic upending global society—calls for tech readiness in the education system are more than a decade old.

The Department of Education’s 2010 National Education Technology Plan called for every student and educator to have “at least one Internet access device and appropriate software and resources for research, communication, multimedia content creation, and collaboration for use in and out of school.” I added the italics to emphasize that this recommendation understood the need for technology both in the classroom and at home.

The plan also addressed internet access: “Only with 24/7 access to the Internet via devices and technology-based software and resources can we achieve the kind of engagement, student-centered learning, and assessments that can improve learning in the ways this plan proposes.” 

Zoom Conference
A very important conversation between, from top left,  President and CEO Karen Cator, President and CEO of Education Trust John B. King Jr., and Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County. Florida Public Schools. Digital Promise

We’re Not Ready

From the way school districts throughout the U.S, responded to the pandemic, it’s clear that most were not prepared and, as usual, it was the underserved and minority communities that were hit the hardest.

“The stark reality is that this is really an equity crisis for the country. Distance learning has both revealed and exacerbated long-standing inequities,” said former Education Secretary under Barack Obama, John B. King Jr., during a recent online conversation hosted by Digital Promise President and CEO Karen Cator.

King, who now serves as President and CEO of Education Trust, spoke with Cator and Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County, Florida, Public Schools. (The full, excellent, conversation is here.)

King noted that the digital divide is not new. “Low income students and students of color were less likely to have devices,” he noted.

And while studies have found that the majority of American homes now have a computer, that does not mean there’s one for every family member. During the pandemic, parents Zooming into work and students (perhaps more than one) doing classwork all needed computers at the same time.

It’s already common knowledge that the pandemic disproportionally affected minority groups. It’s also clear that, for many of them, figuring out how to balance who would Zoom when was the least of their problems. According to King, only one-in-five African Americans can work from home and just one-in-six Latinos can do so.

If parents aren’t home, students may have more to worry about than just connecting to a classroom via Zoom. In Runcie’s county, almost half the students reported having to take care of someone else (often a younger sibling).

Two children learning
Minority students have not had equal access to devices or connectivity.  Getty Images

It Gets Worse

Until the pandemic, internet companies would turn off access for unpaid balances. Starting in March, companies like AT&T and T-Mobile suspended data caps and some joined the FCC’s "Keep Americans Connected pledge," agreeing not to terminate connections for homes and small businesses and to waive late fees.

It’s unclear what will happen when the health crisis passes, but the economic fallout continues. Millions who are out of work or struggling may not be able to afford broadband for the foreseeable future. As long as internet access is not viewed as a human right in the U.S., the disparity between who can afford it and who cannot will remain.

Being Prepared

When Runcie took over his school district in 2011, where 57% of the population is Black, Hispanic, or Latinx, funding per student was around $7,600. Compare this to the average funding for a New York City student which, in 2018, was around $24,000.

Like many underserved counties, Broward had a poor student-to-computer ratio (6-to-1) in 2011, and the equipment was often non-functional.

When the pandemic hit, however, Broward County was better prepared than others. Runcie explained that his district used a bond issue to fund a huge investment in a digital learning management system that included acquiring over 100,000 new devices. Even before school closures, more than half of its teachers were doing blended, online learning that resembles the online learning systems hundreds of school districts around the country struggled to ramp up almost overnight.

Tim Cook
Apple is one of many tech companies trying to help bridge the digital divide.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Runcie’s schools did have to make some changes. While 60% of Broward’s high school teachers and 50% of its middle school teachers were already engaged in online learning systems, just 19% of its elementary school teachers were when the pandemic hit. The good news is that they just had to the scale the existing system.

Part of that scaling meant that every student needed the necessary equipment for distance learning.

“We didn’t ask any questions,” said Runcie. If they were a student in Broward County, they got a computer.

The county also addressed the potential broadband divide, negotiating deals with Comcast and delivering thousands of mobile hotspots directly to students, including those with what Runcie called “housing insecurities,” like homelessness.

Are We Prepared?

It’s not clear how many schools will reopen in September, but the work to bridge the digital divide, one that’s been jump-started by the pandemic, is far from complete.

There are some encouraging signs. Apple’s six-year-old ConnectEd initiative has donated to 114 underserved schools across the U.S. Microsoft has been working to close the rural broadband access gap, and Google has donated Chromebooks and hotspots to underserved communities.

And there's activity at a Federal level. The FCC proposed a $16 billion Rural Broadband Auction that would launch in October.

'Low income students and students of color were less likely to have devices.'

Current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been shepherding relief funds to schools and some educational grant competitions focused on “ways to address helping students most impacted by coronavirus-related education disruptions.” Upgrading the education system's tech capabilities is at least part of her focus.

“What's clear at this point is that this pandemic has really highlighted the need to rethink school to be more nimble, agile, and relevant to 21st-century demands and technological advances,” she told Edweek in May. However, her comments failed to mention the hurdles underserved and minority students face regardless of a pandemic.

So what

For Runcie, though, the message is clear. That 2010 call for a device for every student “needs to be a national priority now.”

There is a sense that the societal upheaval of the past few weeks is the mark of a new beginning and, maybe, a changing society.

If that’s the case, then Runcie’s assertion that “our schools ultimately end up being a reflection of our society,” could be viewed as a hopeful one.