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Closing the Digital Divide: The Critical Role of the Federal Government

Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series art

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

More than a month into the school year, many Native American students attending schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) still didn’t have access to the devices they needed to participate in online learning. Students living in several tribal communities in Arizona, whose members are already disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, were not scheduled to receive laptops until at least November. Back in the spring, more than half of BIE-enrolled students did not have access to any form of digital learning, even if they did own a laptop and had adequate internet access. The pandemic continues to highlight how structural inequities build upon each other, increasing the long-term damage to communities most in need of resources and opportunity.

According to a report from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group (analyzing 2018 census data), roughly 30% of the 50 million public school k–12 students in the United States lacked access to either high-speed internet or devices for easy access to digital learning at home. Of these young people, more than 10 million lacked both high-speed internet and a device to participate fully and consistently in distance learning. According to the same study, at least 300,000 teachers did not have internet with sufficient bandwidth to teach online from home. While these numbers have improved, thanks to quick work on the part of some states and districts, we still have a long way to go. In California, for example, 300,000 students remain without adequate internet—down from over 1.5 million at the start of the pandemic.

In 2020, internet connectivity and adequate devices are a necessity, not a luxury. And the cost of providing our young people with these necessities is well within our reach. By one estimate, an allocation of $500 per student would cover the costs of equipping a household with an inexpensive device; connecting to a high-speed internet provider; and training, software, or other expenses. Given the major economic downturn and state revenue declines accompanying pandemic-related shutdowns, federal investments are critical to ensuring all students have the high-speed broadband and technological devices they need to access instruction and support. This includes making sure that any technology provided is accessible for English learners and for students with disabilities.

In 2020, internet connectivity and adequate devices are a necessity, not a luxury.

School closures in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis have had a huge impact on families and learning—an impact felt most deeply in low-income communities. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 59% of students from low-income households will face at least one of three major obstacles: the lack of reliable internet at home, lack of a computer at home, or having to complete schoolwork on a cell phone. This is just one example of the way in which families living in poverty are particularly left out of the shift to online learning.

Districts have used a range of strategies and partnerships to provide students and families access to devices and hot spots. In Cleveland, for example, the school district has partnered with the nonprofit DigitalC to provide families with internet connectivity for as little as $16 a month. The district is also distributing 17,000 devices and 4,700 temporary hot spots, since 40% of district families had no access to digital learning.

Similarly, the Durham, NC, school district prioritized rapid distribution of hardware and hot spots to students and families—more than 20,000 Chromebooks and 5,900 hot spots—through community center distribution. Still, these rapid-response efforts don’t address the structural barriers that exist in many communities. In Durham, for example, local organizations are combating the equivalent of “digital redlining,” in the words of J’Tanya Adams, the former director of a nonprofit working to close the digital divide. Majority-Black neighborhoods have the highest rates of households without internet subscriptions, making remote and hybrid learning impossible.

The Role of Federal Funding and Leadership

Local efforts, while important, are not sufficient to address the national policy and infrastructure challenges associated with closing the digital divide. Federal funds provided through the CARES Act have already made a difference in helping to close divides that undermine learning. According to FutureEd, governors in 34 states earmarked funds for laptop computers and similar device purchases. In California, for example, the governor allocated more than twice as much money for schools as the CARES Act required ($5.3 billion) to allow districts to address the digital divide and learning loss. Other states are matching federal funds with millions of additional dollars.

Closing the divide is critical not only to ensuring educational equity, but also to ensuring a family’s ability to access important health and safety information, conduct job searches, and more. Many families facing financial challenges brought on by the pandemic-induced health and economic crisis do not have the resources to invest in computers or internet subscriptions. Measuring the depth of poverty a family is experiencing is important for assessing their ability to gain access to broadband on a consistent basis, as well as understanding the degree to which they’re experiencing food or housing insecurity.

Student and family needs also vary considerably depending upon geography. Rural communities, in particular, face the serious logistical hurdle of connecting broadband to remote areas, where internet access can be slow or nonexistent. The federal government is best suited to step in and address this challenge, as there are few financial returns on investment to cable companies for this “last-mile” work in remote areas.

Rural communities, in particular, face the serious logistical hurdle of connecting broadband to remote areas, where internet access can be slow or nonexistent.

An initiative in Jackson County, KY, demonstrates the impact of federal resources in closing the digital divide. In 2009, a local cooperative owned by community members—originally established in the 1950s through a federal loan—used federal funds ($20 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $25 million in federal stimulus funds) to lay thousands of miles of broadband cable to connect all 7,000 structures in one of the poorest counties in the United States. More recently, the federal ReConnect Pilot Program was established to provide aid to rural districts for broadband and could be expanded for even greater impact. Among the returns on rural broadband investment are increased jobs and income, according to economist Brian Whitacre, as well as improved communication with policymakers and increased participation in local organizations.

Without sustained and extensive federal funding, two primary challenges persist for students and families. First, as noted earlier, the internet can be slow or nonexistent in rural areas. Second, even when available, broadband can be prohibitively expensive in urban areas. To make broadband access more affordable, subsidies for low-income households should be bundled with housing and other utility assistance programs.

The most direct and immediate action the federal government can take is to pass another COVID-19 relief bill that includes significant and dedicated funding to close the digital divide. This includes funding through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate program for schools and libraries to purchase connectivity and devices, and monthly subsidies to low-income families and workers who have been laid off and furloughed to help them pay their internet service bills through the end of the pandemic.

Furthermore, future regulation of broadband should be modeled more closely on the regulation of the telephone industry, which provides incentives to providers and graduated rate structures for households designed to ensure access in every home. Just as we cannot imagine communities without telephone connections, so, too, should we envision a country with universal broadband access.

The federal government can leverage policies and resources across agencies, ranging from Education and Commerce to Housing and the FCC, to change regulations and make investments that provide all schools, students, and educators with the technology and the broadband capacity necessary to access information and support learning. Federal investments in technology must also be paired with significant investment in educator professional development to support the effective use and integration of technology into instruction.

Time for a National Effort

These efforts must be coordinated and centralized to prevent the further erosion of educational opportunity and the accompanying consolidation of wealth in this country. While we can point to many individual success stories, a national effort is the only way to ensure that every student has access to high-quality distance and blended learning.