August 18, 2020

Students, Educators Struggle as the Pandemic Widens the Digital Divide

15% of school-age kids in America have no internet access at home

When Owen Mueller found out in March 2020 that his students wouldn’t be returning to school after spring break, he went into crisis mode.

“I was panicking because our kids come from a poor neighborhood — most don’t have internet access or computers at home,” said the 28-year-old of his middle school students in Tampa, Florida.

According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, 15% of school-age kids in the U.S. have no internet access at home, making the digital divide a more pressing issue as schools have turned to online learning. 

The percentage of school-age kids in the U.S. who have no internet access at home

When schools closed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers like Mueller knew that remote learning would be a luxury many families couldn’t afford. According to an April 2020 Pew Research Center survey, about 1 in 5 parents whose children were out of school because of the pandemic said it was very or somewhat likely their kids wouldn’t be able to do schoolwork because they didn’t have computer access (21%) or internet at home (22%). About 3 in 10 parents said it was at least somewhat likely their children would have to do schoolwork on a cellphone.

Triasia Givens and her 9-year-old son suddenly found themselves juggling the laptop that she uses for her work as a mental health counselor, as well as for the double master’s she’s pursuing, and that he needed for remote learning. A week into the pandemic, the sole laptop gave out. 

“It was crazy. How can you get through anything with no technology?” asked the 32-year-old from Minneapolis.

Givens said she’s lucky: She got her son a free laptop through an after-school program, and they have wireless at home — a luxury she said many parents she knows don’t have.

“People are really dealing with some harsh stuff,” she said. “But when things don’t affect the whole community, nobody sees it.”

People are really dealing with some harsh stuff. But when things don’t affect the whole community, nobody sees it.

Triasia Givens

Access to technology in America correlates strongly with income levels. In the same April survey, 43% of lower-income parents said it was very or somewhat likely their kids would have to do schoolwork on their cellphones and 40% said it was very or somewhat likely they’d have to use public Wi-Fi because they didn’t have an internet connection at home.

Mueller said that by the end of the remote school year, fewer than half of his students were able to turn in regular assignments. Some worked on smartphones, and one student could participate only at 10:30 p.m., when the household laptop was available. Six of his students lived in the same housing complex and only one had an internet connection, so they gathered in one living room and dutifully spaced six feet apart per social distancing guidelines to do their schoolwork.

“I worry constantly about the ones that I couldn’t talk to,” Mueller said of the 10 students he was never able to get in touch with. “Most of them are already behind. It just widens the gap.”

“Being working class and being a minority, the kids suffer,” said Maria Sanchez, a 20-year-old Brooklyn College student whose cousins (7 and 14) moved in with her stepfather in upstate New York at the start of the pandemic, in part so they’d have wireless and could share the family laptop. 

“It was challenging,” said Sanchez, who particularly worries about the older cousin because he recently moved from Mexico and is still learning English. She’s had to translate emails from his teachers and watch his confidence evaporate as he tries to speak and understand a still-new language over an occasionally choppy video connection.

While school administrators and educators prepared for the return to school this fall, the economic downturn caused by the pandemic worsened the digital divide for many families. In fact, in the April 2020 Pew survey, roughly half of lower-income Americans who had a high-speed connection at home or owned a smartphone said they were worried about being able to pay their bills in the coming months.  

But some education professionals are hoping that the pandemic will be a wake-up call.

“I hope this can be an opportunity to redesign how we educate kids,” said Barbara Van Eeckhout, a school psychologist on Vashon Island in Washington state. “Maybe we can use this to improve. Maybe this can be a chance for us to look at the big picture.”

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