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Ed-Tech Policy

1 in 3 American Indian, Black, and Latino Children Fall Into Digital Divide, Study Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 22, 2020 3 min read
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The decision by a rising number of school districts to start a new year with remote-only learning during the pandemic could disadvantage millions of students, and children of color in particular, according to a new analysis.

Overall, 16.9 million children under the age of 18 lack high-speed home internet, the study from four groups says. And children in one in three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households lack such internet access, making children in those homes “more likely than their White peers to be disconnected from online learning,” the analysis states.

“Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap” was published by Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League, and UnidosUS. Pointing to this data, the groups are calling for $6.8 billion in new funding for the federal E-Rate program, which provides discounted internet services to schools and libraries, in any future virus relief packages.

Such connectivity is crucial for students seeking to keep up with their schoolwork during the pandemic, those four groups say, especially since relying on a mobile device for internet access is “largely ineffective for completing digital assignments and participating in online classes.”

Among different student racial groups, American Indian/Alaska Native students are the most likely not to have such internet services at home, as you can see from the chart at the beginning of this piece—by some measures, Native Americans have had the highest rate of coronavirus infections at different points during the pandemic.

In addition, when the data is broken down by income, 23 percent of all households lack high-speed internet. Not surprisingly, the share of households with relatively low incomes without such internet access is much higher than that. And households without high-speed internet or computers are much more likely to be in non-metro “rural” areas than in metro areas, the report says, with particularly acute shortages in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The new analysis from the four groups relies on information from the 2018 American Community Survey, and defines “high-speed home internet access” as a “wireline broadband internet subscription.” The report draws information about households with children under 18, and therefore does not focus solely on school-age children, although early learners can also be affected by the lack of internet and connected devices.

This digital divide and the homework gap—terms that generally refer to disparities in access to high-speed internet and connected devices between groups of students—has been an issue for years. And according to results from a survey Education Week conducted in April, those inequities have become even more raw and obvious during the pandemic.

“In districts with the lowest percentages of students from low-income families, just 1 in 5 leaders reported in late March that a lack of basic technology is a ‘major’ problem, compared with nearly two-thirds of leaders in districts where the highest percentages of students are from low-income families,” Education Week’s Ben Herold wrote in April about those survey results.

The homework gap for American Indian students “threatens to have long-term impacts on Native students, and it is the duty of the federal government to uphold its treaty and trust responsibilities, including those for equity and sovereignty in education, to Native nations,” National Indian Education Association Diana Cournoyer said in a statement accompanying the report.

And UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía said the pandemic has “exposed the impact of the digital divide on the academic progress” of many students of color and low-income students, which in turn has denied them “the opportunity to meaningfully engage in online learning, resulting in learning loss and widening achievement gaps.”

A virus relief package passed by the House in May—and rejected out of hand by the Senate—would provide $1.5 billion in new E-Rate funding, and an additional $4 billion to help low-income families pay for internet service.