The Pandemic Exposed a Massive Digital Divide in U.S. Schools

The Pandemic Exposed a Massive Digital Divide in U.S. Schools

The covid-19 pandemic has up-ended the U.S. educational system. In the middle of last semester, many students and teachers had to shift from traditional school environments to 100% online learning, with little or no warning and no time to prepare. The result has exposed just how pervasive technological inequality is in the U.S., and how families’ lack of access to computers and reliable internet is more than just a problem. It’s a disaster.

Students who otherwise wouldn’t struggle in school are struggling due to a lack of resources at home. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that decisions made by both the U.S. government and telecom companies primed this crisis to be much worse than it already was. The pandemic has increased our reliance on technology ” that much is obvious ” but it’s also exposed just how much traditional school systems and online learning are at odds, particularly when it comes to infrastructure.

School districts are beginning to decide whether or not to resume in-person classes in the autumn, and it’s looking like physical attendance will be supplemented if not entirely replaced by virtual instruction. U.S. schools need boards of education, state and federal governments, and private telecoms to step up and create actual change that benefits both teachers and students without putting their health at risk.

The CDC released guidelines on how to safely open schools, such as placing physical barriers between students’ desks and requiring the use of face masks, yet many of those are not feasible due a variety of factors, like the number of students in a single class and funding for such preventative measures. U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to pull federal funds from schools if they do not “fully open,” yet that puts the health of hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, school administrators, and parents at risk.

Because of the mixed messaging schools receive from U.S. government and health officials, many have no idea what their learning model will look like in autumn. Los Angeles and San Diego Unified School Districts recently announced they won’t be resuming physical classes when school starts up again next month, but others have yet to figure out their plans. Hybrid models are being explored, yet pose immense challenges.

And to cap it all off, most cell and internet providers have stopped waiving data overage and late fees, so it’s likely that more American students will remain offline once the school year resumes.

What a mess.

As a teacher myself, who has taught high school students in college-style creative writing classes for the last four years, I wanted to see if other teachers’ experiences mirrored my own during the pandemic. I spoke with several teachers and administrators from a variety of backgrounds in the K-12 system, and each of them reported seeing the same results play out in their schools. Students who were normally enthusiastic and engaged in class stopped turning in work, either because they lost all motivation, had unreliable internet access or none whatsoever, or lacked a safe, quiet study space at home. In some cases, our students’ parents pulled them away from their studies to take care of younger siblings or do household chores. Others were unhoused.

That’s a lot of issues to handle, but the problem of internet access isn’t new. Organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been talking about the digital divide for years ” and are still talking about it, because it hasn’t been addressed. In a recent EFF article, senior legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon said the pandemic has increased the reliance on internet access more than ever, but “policy decisions that have left [them] at the mercy of a few, giant companies whose business concerns don’t include all Americans.”

According to a 2019 U.S. Federal Communications Commission broadband report, 21.3 million Americans (or 6.5% of the population) lack access to broadband internet. However, the real number is likely much higher due to a flaw in reporting that was only recently fixed. According to Broadband Now, “if an ISP offers service to at least one household in a census block, then the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider.” Broadband Now estimates that the total number of Americans who lack access to broadband internet is more likely around 42 million. Most of those individuals live in rural areas, but under-reporting affects those who live in homes and apartments in urban areas as well.

Those Americans include a school administrator I spoke with who works with at-risk youth. Mary (not her actual name) also has a teenage daughter.

“My daughter needed access to a hotspot at our home this spring because we live in a deeply rural area, and regular internet is completely unreliable. The district said time and again that it was coming, but it never did,” Mary told me.

She doesn’t consider her daughter to be an at-risk youth like the students she works with in school, but is keenly aware of how a lack of reliable internet access is affecting them both. At-risk students, however, have far more obstacles in their way to getting an education, especially when it comes to getting their hands a computer.

“It’s harder for at-risk students because the issue is systemic,” Mary said. “Districts are reticent in handing out technology to students, but to those students in particular, because how will they recoup those costs? It’s assumed that those students will lose or damage that technology when students everywhere lose or damage technology.”

According to a 2018 U.S. Census report, 10.7% of U.S. households, 12.7 million of 118.8 million homes, lacked a desktop or laptop computer in 2016. The report also noted that “households with a Black householder were the least likely to own or use a desktop or laptop, own or use a tablet, or to have a broadband subscription.” Additionally, “low-income households were least likely to be high-connectivity households, but had the highest proportion of smartphone-only households.” This indicates that students in households with no computer and no broadband internet access are relying on their cell phones to complete their school work.

Mary’s district is able to loan computers to students, thankfully. She works in a specialised residential program that helps get at-risk students back on track when they are severely struggling in traditional schools, either due to academic troubles, behavioural issues, or other reasons that would put them at a disadvantage. These students board together in dorm-style facilities that are in the same location as their classrooms, similar to the way dorms on a college campus would work, but the facilities the students live in weren’t built specifically for the program.

Sanitary wipes and cleaning supplies sit on a shelf in a classroom waiting to be used next year at Freedom Preparatory Academy on May 18, 2020, in Provo, Utah. (Photo: George Frey, Getty Images)
Sanitary wipes and cleaning supplies sit on a shelf in a classroom waiting to be used next year at Freedom Preparatory Academy on May 18, 2020, in Provo, Utah. (Photo: George Frey, Getty Images)

Once enrolled, students live and study at these facilities for five months, which is incredibly structured to focus on academics and life skills. No cell phones and no non-academic internet access is allowed, Mary tells me. At the end of five months, after the students have passed their High School Equivalency Tests and completed their classes online they graduate from the program and go back to their neighbourhood schools. But a lot of the time that means leaving behind the essential technological resources provided by Mary’s program.

“I know many of my former at-risk students had (and likely still have) similar accessibility issues,” Mary said.

Under normal circumstances, most of these students transition back into traditional schools seamlessly. But the pandemic has presented challenges because many of them don’t have reliable access to a computer or internet. Mary said it’s likely that some of the students’ parents have lost their jobs due to covid-19 and were relying on telecom providers’ promises to not cancel coverage for non-payment or open up free hotspots. She added that it’s tough to know for sure, because students and their families aren’t always forthcoming with that information.

An elementary school teacher I spoke with, Julie (not her real name), said it was hard to stay in contact with many at-risk students and their families because they outright did not have internet access or only one computer to share among several family members. Julie knew of 30 students at her school alone who didn’t have internet before the pandemic started, and had to apply for low-cost programs provided by major ISPs like AT&T once schools went online.

In Julie’s district, there is a high population of English-language learners, Title I students (students who attend schools that serve the most low-income students out of all the schools in a district), foster youth, and other at-risk populations. It was up to each school to determine who needed laptops and who needed Wi-Fi hotspots, if they didn’t have internet access. The district was able to get those to the students, but some had to make do without for the first month of remote learning.

“One of the hardest parts about [getting tech to the students] was trying to help parents learn it,” Julie said. “Our jobs actually became the tech help desk. Parents would come to me and say, “˜I can’t get this to work.’”

She expects this aspect of remote learning to get better with time, and said she thought it was already starting to by the end of the semester.

Joanne Collins Brock , a second grade teacher at St Francis School (Goshen), teaches online in her empty classroom on April 15, 2020, in Goshen, Ky. (Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)
Joanne Collins Brock , a second grade teacher at St Francis School (Goshen), teaches online in her empty classroom on April 15, 2020, in Goshen, Ky. (Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

A high school teacher, Diana (not her real name), told me some of her students didn’t know how to access their school emails, or even use tools like the magnifying glass to enlarge small print on their computer screen. Communicating via email or with other tools provided by her school was also hard for her students. Most are used to getting their questions answered right away in class, or having someone right there to help them. They are not used to troubleshooting tech issues on their own.

Still, knowing how to use the system doesn’t help if you can’t access it. Almost all phone carriers and internet service providers have gone back to business as usual, even though the pandemic still rages on. Taking away hotspots is especially problematic for transient and homeless students. Not all schools and districts like Julie’s can provide them, either because they don’t have the funding or because they don’t trust the students with them. Often the only way they can access the internet to complete classwork and communicate with their teachers is at a local or school library, but those have been closed due to the pandemic. Nonprofits like TechSoup, which provides laptops and cell phones to foster and at-risk youth, help bridge the gap during normal times, but the pandemic has had them overwhelmed.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homeless, a total of 263,058 students in my home state of California experienced homelessness at some point during the 2018-2019 school year, meaning they lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. In New York, the total number was 153,209. Texas, 231,305. Diana said there is between 4,000-5,000 homeless students in grades K-12 in her school district. And according to Learn4Life, a network of nonprofit public schools, homeless youth are 87% more likely to drop out of high school ” and that stat was prior to the pandemic.

Mary, Julie, and Diana have no idea what their teaching model will look like in the fall: in-person, totally online, or a hybrid of both. While it doesn’t matter so much for Mary because her school environment is able to easily comply with any health and safety laws and guidelines to protect students, teachers, and staff from covid-19, Julie and Diana work in large, traditional school districts where the average class size is about 30 students. Julie teaches elementary school, and sees the same 30 students every day, but Diana has nearly 200 students to manage because she teaches high school. In both their cases, a hybrid model seems to be a poor solution.

A lower school substitute teacher works from her home, helping other teachers build skills with new digital platforms, due to the coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia.  (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP, Getty Images)
A lower school substitute teacher works from her home, helping other teachers build skills with new digital platforms, due to the coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP, Getty Images)

“There isn’t going to be a hybrid [teaching model] because it’s very expensive to clean the rooms multiple times a day, and there just isn’t the staffing,” Julie said. “It would be hard for a teacher to sustain teaching in a classroom, but then also support online learning.”

The CDC has recommended schools clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces as much as possible to help prevent the spread of covid-19. This new cleaning routine would ultimately become the responsibility of teachers throughout the day.

Currently, Julie’s district is looking at either 100% online learning, or 100% in-person teaching. Every teacher I spoke with feels more prepared for whatever happens in the upcoming semester than they did in the spring, but at the same time, all emphasised the need for teacher training. Many teachers are already trained in using technology in their classrooms, whether that’s tools like Google Classroom to keep track of assignments and grades, or apps like Kahoot! that let teachers poll or quiz students in real-time on their smart phones.

While those services can be used in distance learning, the actual mode of instruction is quite different. Odds are if you are a teacher who enrolled in a credential program five or more years ago, you weren’t trained on how to teach remotely. Things like group discussions suddenly become very different when moved online, and knowing the best practices of how to use messages boards or video conferencing (even uploading videos to YouTube or streaming on Twitch) can make carrying out lessons easier. If these tools are replacing in-person instruction, teachers have to become experts in using them.

“All teachers would benefit from quality professional development that teaches them how to utilise technology in a way that’s going to be positively impactful for our kids this year,” Mary said. “Historically, we’ve integrated tech into the classroom, but this year, we need to teach through it.”

My own experiences teaching this past spring were similar. One of my students disappeared for the rest of the semester after covid-19 ended our in-person classes. I managed to track down some students after a few weeks of radio silence. Some did the work but couldn’t attend our video chats because their internet wasn’t good enough. I had assumed I was in a better place than most teachers because I live and breathe tech, and because myself and my students were already using email and Google Classroom. I only taught 24 students once a week, but the gap in tech accessibility was incredibly wide and glaringly obvious. We teachers are pretty crafty when it comes to doing a lot with a little bit, but we can’t fix the internet.

If we had the infrastructure to support all these students with the tech they need, and give the teachers the training they need, we could actually fully focus on teaching instead of worrying about why we haven’t seen a student in our online class in weeks. But instead we have to bicker with our government and ISPs over net neutrality and data caps, and hope they’ll actually give a damn about the digital divide. Many students were already left behind by the system before the pandemic, but now that we are in the throes of it, even more of them are struggling to keep up with their studies. That will have huge ramifications on their futures ” and on the economy.

California’s state legislature is currently taking up a bill that could be a model for other states to follow. SB-1130 Telecommunications: California Advanced Services Fund aims to provide every single household in the state with fibre broadband. It would, according to the EFF, put California on par with its “international competitors, end the digital divide for Californians, and prevent a repeat of the lack of connectivity challenges residents have faced as they engage in social distancing, remote education, and working from home.” The bill would get existing laws off the books that prohibit local municipalities from creating their own government-backed ISP, increase ISP competition, and break up some of the monopolies giant ISPs have throughout many cities.

This is a clear way to keep American students from falling behind. But given the incredibly messy, fragmented response to covid-19 we’ve seen so far, I have to admit I’m not hopeful we’ll see changes in time for autumn. For many kids, it might already be too late.

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