Just a few months after celebrating the country’s achievement of its goal to connect 99 percent of our school buildings to broadband, 1 the COVID-19 pandemic required a sudden and complete shift to hybrid and remote learning for most schools. Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted issues of home internet access that have long impacted students and made clear that many of the strategies relied on before the COVID-19 pandemic needed to be shifted to equitably meet students’ needs.2
A June 2020 report from Common Sense Media found that up to 16 million K-12 public school students live in households either without an internet connection or without a device adequate for remote learning at home. Approximately 9 million of these students live in households with neither an adequate connection nor an adequate device for remote learning.3 Research shows that lack of high-speed broadband is more pronounced in low-income, rural, and Tribal communities, and for Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American households.4
Over the last year, new partnerships have emerged at the state, Tribal, and local levels, between the public and private sector to implement immediate connectivity solutions to ensure continuity of learning for students. States launched new data collection and outreach efforts to gather better data on student access to internet and devices at home, deployed creative connectivity solutions, and implemented new approaches to supporting districts. State and local use of emergency stimulus funding5 along with state and local funds to purchase and lend mobile hotspots or pay for home internet subscriptions have temporarily eased connectivity issues for approximately 4 million students; however, more than 75 percent of the state and local efforts to address the digital divide for students will expire in the next 1 to 3 years.6 Once emergency stimulus programs end, states and districts will be required to cover these new, recurring expenses in already limited budgets. A coordinated federal, state, and local effort is needed to sustain and continue building on the progress made to ensure home internet access for students.
As our students continue to return to school buildings and we move from pandemic response to recovery, technology will be essential for meeting the needs of diverse learners, supporting teachers, and providing school and district leaders with flexible models to support and accelerate learning. Reliable home internet access is also critical for ensuring an equitable recovery for our students’ families and across our communities—by providing access to online workforce development resources, job skills training, and telehealth services. It is important that we remain focused on addressing the digital divide for students in order to strengthen the resilience of our learning ecosystem in the face of future disruptions and provide equitable access to high-quality education.
1. Education Superhighway (2019). 2019 State of States: The Classroom Connectivity Gap is Closed. Retrieved from https://3x4u3i1w2onf4vhj418itzm1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019-State-of-the-States-Full-Report-EducationSuperHighway.pdf. The 2019 State of the States report notes that 99% of schools are connected at speeds of 100 kbps per student, the FCC minimum recommended bandwidth to enable digital learning in the classroom. Starting in 2018, the FCC raised this standard to1 Mbps per student. In 2020, Connect K-12 reported that 47% of school districts are meeting the 1 Mbps per student goal: https://connectk12.org/static/media/Connect_K12_2020_Executive_Summary_Full_Report.d84a960a.pdf
2. U.S. Department of Education. (2021). Keeping Students Connected and Learning: Strategies for Deploying School District Wireless Networks as a Sustainable Solution to Connect Students at Home. Retrieved from: https://tech.ed.gov/wireless-brief/. Before the pandemic, schools, districts, and states were taking a variety of approaches to address the homework gap—from purchasing and lending mobile hotspots, to parking buses equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots near under-connected neighborhoods, to allowing students to use the school’s internet before or after school. In many cases, however, unserved or underserved students have had to piece together internet access via smartphones with limited cellular data plans or travel to a library or fast-food restaurant to use free Wi-Fi. Even these basic solutions have become more difficult to navigate as schools, libraries, and businesses have closed or limited access to the public during the pandemic.
3. Chandra, S., Chang, A., Day, L., Fazlullah, A., Liu, J., McBride, L., Mudalige, T., Weiss, D., (2020). Closing the K–12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Consulting Group.
4. U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. (2017, September). America’s digital divide. Retrieved from: https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/ff7b3d0b-bc00-4498-9f9d-3e56ef95088f/the-digital-divide-.pdf
5. States and districts have received three rounds of emergency stimulus funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA), and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP). Information about these programs is available on the Department’s website: https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/
6. Ali, T., Chandra, S., Cherukumilli, S., Fazlullah, A., Galicia, E., Hill, H., McAlpine, N., McBride, L., Vaduganathan, N., Weiss, D., Wu, M. (2021). Looking back, looking forward: What it will take to permanently close the K–12 digital divide. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Retrieved from: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/pdfs/final_-_what_it_will_take_to_permanently_close_the_k-12_digital_divide_vfeb3.pdf