Advocates warn 'homework gap' likely to persist after pandemic

The digital divide in education that was exposed by remote learning during the pandemic is likely to persist even when students return to classrooms, advocates warn.

The “homework gap” — the divide between students who have home access to the internet for educational purposes and those who don’t — has proven challenging for educators in rural and even some urban areas where broadband is not available or affordable. Many teachers are also affected.

While efforts are underway to provide students with adequate internet access, advocates say the problem is unlikely to go away in the fall because remote learning will not completely go away when in-person classes resume.

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“This is like water, as far as we're concerned,” said Titilayo Tinubu Ali, senior director of research and policy at the Southern Education Foundation, “It's a utility in the 21st century, to have access to high quality internet in your home, so that you can do your learning in a place that's convenient and comfortable.”

About one-third of K-12 public school students in the U.S. are impacted by the digital divide, according to a report this year from Common Sense Media, the Southern Education Foundation and Boston Consulting Group.

The divide disproportionately affects students from more rural areas, particularly southern states, as well as those in communities of color and low-income families.

The issue in rural areas, Ali said, is having access in the home as opposed to needing to travel to libraries or school. Sometimes teachers don’t even have reliable connectivity to do their jobs.

“You have a student, you don't have access in the home. They have a teacher who may not have consistent access as well,” Ali said. “When you compound all of those things, it’s easy to see how oftentimes, students are having unequal learning experiences.”

Advocates say that closing the digital divide requires building out infrastructure.

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Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy at Common Sense Media, said infrastructure spending is needed to help bridge the digital gaps around the country.

“If we don't make investments in infrastructure now, any digital divide solution will be that much more,” Fazlullah said. “It will be less ideal and will be that much more expensive.”

For example, Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn., partnered with its utility provider EPB to provide a router and at least 100 Mbps of internet service for free to students who receive free or reduced lunch.

The Chattanooga area is served by a fiber optic network that offers access to every home and business, a system that has been in place since 2010.

At the federal level, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed into law by President BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE in March included a $7.2 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which aims to help schools and libraries provide devices and connectivity to students.

Several states have taken action during the pandemic to procure devices for students who were in need. Virginia, for example, conducted a survey to identify and provide students with Chromebooks.

Companies have also partnered with schools to provide necessary services.

But closing the digital divide is an issue that extends beyond education and affects other fields like telemedicine and working for home.

Tom Romanoff, director of The Technology Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said there’s widespread acknowledgement that investing in high speed internet is important for participating in the modern economy.

“So much of America is done online these days,” Romanoff said. “It doesn't matter what party you come from. In order to participate in the modern economy and have access to a lot of resources, there's definitely a need to get online for that.”

Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, which is still taking form on Capitol Hill, would invest $100 billion in broadband internet access by focusing on expanding broadband to underserved communities.

Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for NCTA — The Internet & Television Association, said it’s important to ensure that resources are being sent to areas that need the most help. 

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“The biggest issue for us is ensuring — and it should be for policymakers — is ensuring that the dollars are targeted to where they are needed most. Which is where broadband networks don't exist currently versus funding the building of second or third networks where they already do exist,” he said.

In the long term, Romanoff said, a bipartisan approach would be the best way to close the digital divide.

“A bipartisan approach is definitely going to be more fruitful than some of the more partisan proposals that are out there,” Romanoff said. “And there is definitely some interest from both sides of the party to address this issue. So a bipartisan approach will definitely be the more fruitful we think, in the long term.”