The coronavirus hit low-income families the hardest, according to statistics released by public health officials in New York City. The smartphone location data analyzed by The New York Times shows that people in the top 10 percent of income are more likely to stay/work at home, compared with those in the bottom 10 percent of the same metro areas. Research from the Brookings Institution in March suggests that 32 million U.S. households do not have adequate in-home broadband, and people living in these households cannot telework during the pandemic.

For students from low-income families, shortage of digital resources (e.g., broadband, computers) certainly impedes their participation in online learning during school closures. Previous evidence shows that it takes years for students to recover the learning they lose due to unplanned school closures.

Researchers at Tulane University tracked students who returned to New Orleans and reenrolled in newly reorganized schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which forced most public schools to close for the entire fall term. They found that it took two full school years for those returning students to fully recover their lost learning, and the negative impact was worse for low-income and African American students.

Digital divide

The digital divide is a term used to describe the gap in many aspects such as education, employment, and life between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. According to the Pew Research Center, among Americans with household incomes below $30,000 a year, at least four in 10 don’t have home broadband services or a traditional computer. Research suggests that while many aspects of the digital divide have narrowed over time, the digital lives of lower- and higher-income families remain markedly different in the U.S.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce collects data on broadband internet usage in the U.S. NTIA periodically publishes the Digital Nation Data about broadband adoption in the U.S. The report includes information on why people do not subscribe, and which populations are lagging in usage. The data show a nationwide trend of the digital divide.

Among people with family income under $25,000, over half did not have internet at home (54 percent). In this population:

  • Two in five households reported that no one in the family used the internet at home.
  • One in four reported that the main reason for not having the internet at home was the expense.
  • Even among those with internet at home, the proportion of households with wired high-speed internet services at home (75 percent) was much lower than that of affluent families (90 percent).

Problem-solving skills

The digital divide is likely to be one of the contributing factors to the skills gap between American youth and youth in other countries. Solving problems with the support of technology has become an essential real-life skill in the 21st century.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments as “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” Data from OECD show that a higher percentage of U.S. 16- to 19-year-olds performed at the lowest proficiency level in the skills than the OECD average.

It is unclear to what extent the digital divide may exacerbate the gap of problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments between students from low-income families and their peers from affluent families. However, a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Education on the topic did say that students with access to digital learning resources outside of the classroom have more knowledge and skills for solving problems with the support of technology than their peers without the access.

The 'homework gap'

According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 18 percent of students living in remote rural areas have either no internet access or just a dial-up connection, as opposed to 7 percent of students living in large suburban areas who lack access. For Black students living in remote rural areas, 41 percent either lack access or a connection better than dial-up. While many factors contribute to achievement gaps, in many cases the gap starts from the fact that students may have access to high-speed broadband in the classroom, but not at home.

The National Education Association (NEA) states that “the cruelest part of the digital divide” is “the homework gap.” The homework gap refers to the barriers that students face when working on homework assignments without a reliable internet source at home. Experts from the Consortium for School Networking point out that the homework gap has widened as an increasing number of schools incorporate internet-based learning into the daily curriculum.

Districts bridging the divide

Amidst all the challenges created by the school closures during the pandemic, many school districts are working hard to leverage technology and limited resources to do the most for their students. School districts employed a variety of methods to make sure that every student can continue learning.

  • Butler Area School District in Pennsylvania is using its radio network to reach students during school closures. For one hour every weekday, the district features its “On-Air Classroom” for elementary and secondary students. Sessions are archived and available for later access online.
  • In the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), students without access to computers, devices, or the internet can view lessons on “MyNetworkTV” through broadcast television and local cable, thanks to the efforts of DCPS teachers.
  • The Iowa City Community School District previously established a one-to-one program that provided middle and high school students with devices and options for internet access. Now, the district is working on doing the same for elementary students.

Mitigation to flatten the curve

“Mitigation” and “flattening the curve” have become two of the most used terms during the COVID-19 pandemic. The philosophy behind the strategy is to take action to reduce the severity of a potentially worse situation. During the current school closures, policymakers need to actively seek solutions to ensure that all students can continue their education.

In the long run, bridging the digital divide is a “mitigation” approach to “flatten the curve” of education accessibility and to prevent further widening of the opportunity gap between students from low-income families and their peers from families with higher income.

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