The Digital Divide Has Never Been More Critical, or Solvable

By Tanya Borachi -

As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges, and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to upend most of our seminal institutions, including the K-12 education system. Since schools around the country started closing down in mid-March, more than 54 million students have transitioned to distance learning. As a current graduate student, my classes also have gone online, and we are expected to complete assignments and attend class just as we did before. I am fortunate enough to have a laptop and reliable internet. Otherwise it would be impossible for me to be successful. Unfortunately, our younger and most at-risk students who do not have these same tools may find the transition to online learning extremely difficult.

The current transition to digital learning highlights the underlying inequity that has persisted in our schools for decades. The “digital divide” still plagues approximately 12 million students, which is one of the most disheartening equity issues facing students.(1) This divide has persisted for more than 20 years, but it is even more critical now that so much learning and instruction is taking place online with no other options.

Before joining HCM, I was a college counselor at a Title I high school in Detroit, where I saw firsthand how stifling the digital divide can be. Students would often be in my office until 9 pm working on their FAFSA forms or completing college applications on their phones. I saw many students falling behind in school because they were unable to complete their schoolwork at home without a device or internet connection. It was not until my last year that the district was able to appropriate funds for a computer lab. Now, with so many schools closed following the COVID-19 outbreak, these issues are even more prevalent.

Nationally, as many as 40% of students are unable to participate in online learning due to lack of connectivity or devices.(2) Students without access to reliable internet service or devices also are more likely to be those who have been historically underserved by our schools, and they will be left behind if we don’t address the problem. According to a 2017 report published by the National Center for Education Statistics, the digital divide disproportionately affects African American, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native students who lack access to connectivity at higher rates than other students.(3) Sadly, advocates believe that these numbers may be higher when factoring in hard to reach populations. The COVID-19 Pandemic has shown us that access to devices and affordable internet must be considered a necessity instead of a luxury.

Fortunately, many districts and states have risen to this challenge with creative solutions and ways to reach students who lack access or devices. Districts are providing laptops or tablets to students. They are supplying students with Wi-Fi hotspots and retrofitting buses with Wi-Fi to become mobile hotspots for students. But we also need long-term solutions to support digital learning at home, especially given the possibility of school closures in the future, and perhaps the changing nature of education as we know it.

Experts conservatively estimate that a minimum of $2 billion, and more realistically $4 to $5 billion, in additional funding is required to make real progress toward closing the connectivity gap nationally. While there is bipartisan support for this issue at the FCC and in Congress, there is disagreement on whether or not to allocate through the E-rate program or create another program. The more pressure that is placed on lawmakers, the more likely a relief or stimulus bill will include a plan to make sure every student is connected.

I think about my former students and wonder how many are able to participate in online learning or connect with their teachers. I worry that nothing is being done to support them in one of the most trying times in our history. Recently, an administrator told me that several students have been sitting outside my former school trying to use the building’s Wi-Fi to complete assignments in order to graduate. Our students deserve better. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the digital divide and its impact on students. Educators, advocates and policymakers need to leverage this moment in time to finally close the digital divide and provide all of our students with high-quality digital education, no matter who they are or where they live.






(1) America’s Digital Divide published by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee in 2017
(2) 53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak published by the Pew Research Center on April 30th, 2020
(3) Percentage of persons age 3 and over and ages 3 to 18 with no internet access at home and percentage distribution of those with no home access, by main reason for not having access and selected characteristics published by the National Center for Education Statistics in October 2018.
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