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Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don’t?

By Mark Lieberman — April 20, 2021 8 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.

A year after the pandemic exposed deep inequities in K-12 students’ access to technology at home, the picture is looking very different.

In a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, more than three-quarters of teachers said more than 75 percent of their students have adequate internet access at home for consistent participation in remote learning.

Access to digital devices like tablets and laptops is even more widespread: More than half of respondents said every student has adequate access to the devices they need for online learning, and another third said that’s true for more than three-quarters of their students.

The flip side of that coin, though, is that 6 percent of respondents said fewer than half their students have adequate home internet access.

Similarly, 5 percent of respondents said half of their students or fewer have adequate access to devices.

Those percentages of students without devices may seem small, but it’s worth putting them in context: If even 5 percent of K-12 students in the United States aren’t adequately connected to learn from home, that’s more than 2 million students.

Pie charts showing the percentage of students who have access to the home internet services they need and the percentage who have access to the devices they need.

It makes sense, then, that close to half of district leaders said they plan to invest “a lot” of money going forward in devices, and close to three-fifths said they’ll be investing “some” or “a lot” of money to expand home internet access for students and families.

Some of the factors delaying progress to close the digital divide are out of schools’ hands.

Schools are still feeling the effects of supply chain strain from the early days of the pandemic, when factories were running out of the materials needed to make laptops fast enough for them to be shipped on time. Nearly a third of respondents to the EdWeek Research Center survey said they still haven’t received all the technology items they ordered during the pandemic.

Here’s a look at the work currently underway at the different levels of government—school districts, states, and federal agencies—to bridge tech access gaps.

School districts are aware much more work needs to be done

Districts have gotten creative with expanding technology access during the pandemic, partnering with local businesses and Native American communities, distributing devices and hotspots, and paying for families’ internet service. One Wisconsin district is even using drones tethered to a power source on the ground to expand internet connectivity for families in rural areas.

A recent Common Sense Media report found that the K-12 internet access gap has shrunk by between 20 percent and 40 percent over the last year, and the device access gap by between 40 percent and 60 percent.

Still, the report estimates between 9 million and 12 million U.S. students still lack adequate internet access at home for remote learning. Progress for Latinx families has been particularly slow, the report says, possibly because of “certain adoption barriers more commonly or acutely experienced by Latinx families, including language barriers and reluctance toward providing personal information.”

Celebrations of progress toward closing the digital divide tend to leave out the work that remains to be done. Much of it will require a concerted effort to funnel more resources to low-income communities in both rural and urban areas.

Bar chart showing which students are-or will be-using the devices you purchased during the pandemic.

Thomasville, Ala., lies 60 miles from the nearest interstate highway and 100 miles from the nearest metropolitan area. “We’re the rural of the rural,” said Sheldon Day, the city’s mayor since 1996.

During the pandemic, the city government has broadcast its internet signal to as many public facilities as it can, asked local businesses to share their networks as well, and brought Wi-Fi-enabled school buses closer to where students could reach them and complete online schoolwork.

The town sent hotspots to families who didn’t have internet access at home. “If they had a decent cell signal, they could access those. The challenge has been, in the middle of Timber Country, cell signals get absorbed by the timber,” Day said.

Families who did have internet access at home struggled through even slower connections than their urban counterparts, because the service providers’ networks in rural areas weren’t strong enough to withstand the unusual increase in online activity.

“We’ve got children who are going to lose two years of educational attainment and adults who are going to lose two years of opportunities to bridge a gap in their technical training attainment that could help them get a real good paying job,” Day said.

Thomasville is in the southern Black Belt region, characterized by its rich black soil. That region is lagging behind much of the country when it comes to internet connectivity. According to a recent report from the University of Alabama’s edPolicy center, more than 10 Black Belt counties have less than 50 percent internet connectivity, and two counties have virtually none.

These numbers highlight the formidable challenge ahead for turning the rapid nationwide progress on closing the digital divide into change that lasts over the long haul. Providing robust home connectivity, experts say, will require gaining the trust of families who might be skeptical of school districts’ or governments’ involvement in their daily lives, or confused about how to operate unfamiliar technology.

It’s worthwhile to view the value of efforts to close the digital divide for the ripple effects they may provide.

Day said many parents in the area have grown more technologically savvy than ever before as they’ve had to play a more active role in helping their students learn on their newly acquired digital devices.

“Over the past year our parents have probably been more educated on technology than the children, which is going to make us better going forward,” Day said.

States that put a device in the hands of nearly every student offer roadmaps to replicate

A handful of states have recently declared that they’ve officially closed the digital divide, at least when it comes to device access. These states offer roadmaps that could be replicated elsewhere.

Every K-12 student in Texas now has access to a working digital device at home, thanks to a coordinated effort among district superintendents, the state education department, state legislators, and the governor’s office.

Launched in May, Operation Connectivity quickly surveyed hundreds of districts to find out their immediate technology needs. Among the first findings: Many districts were struggling with bulk deliveries of laptops and tablets on back order. The state used its bargaining power for a bulk purchase of 1.3 million devices for $200 million—at a 40 percent discount from market rate—in less than three months.

This is not a problem that we can throw enough money at and it will go away. It’s systemic.

By the end of 2020, in a state with 5.5 million K-12 students—including 3.3 million who are economically disadvantaged—the connectivity initiative had helped districts add 4.6 million devices.

“We feel very confident that at the end of the first phase of connectivity efforts, we went from having a very low ratio of devices in students’ hands to being truly one-to-one across our entire state,” said Gaby Rowe, who’s leading the Operation Connectivity initiative in Texas. “We know now we’ve built one leg of that stool very firmly.”

The state was able to provide resources that individual districts couldn’t have put together on their own. The connectivity initiative crafted a machine-learning platform that helped quickly analyze more than 120,000 invoices, leading to faster reimbursements for districts that used their own money to buy technology. “The best advice I can give people is, ‘Think like a startup,’ ” Rowe said.

Connecticut has also provided every K-12 student with a laptop or digital device. Efforts to bolster internet connectivity are ongoing.

Nick Simmons, director of strategic initiatives for the Connecticut governor’s office, believes these efforts reflect the positive outcomes that come from a coordinated government approach to longstanding challenges.

“We played the role of an aggregator for districts—this is how many students in that area need your support, and then connected the internet company directly with the district,” Simmons said. “We sent families a voucher so they could call the cable company, give that company their voucher, and get a technician over to the house. All of that was paid for by the state.”

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Federal government eyes continued support for addressing tech equity challenges

A bipartisan group of U.S. House members has re-introduced a bill called the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. If passed, the bill would authorize $94 billion to build internet infrastructure in places where it doesn’t exist, expand affordable options for families who struggle to pay internet bills, and ensure that all K-12 students can access online schooling from home.

Notably, it would also nullify existing state laws that prevent the creation of local and municipal broadband networks, and prevent such laws from being written in the future. Close to two dozen states currently either prohibit municipal broadband networks or make them difficult to create.

Broadband advocates view municipal networks as valuable tools for lowering the cost of internet access across the board, and for serving as a stable public option that can work well for areas that traditional internet service providers don’t have a financial incentive to reach.

In the meantime, the $2 trillion federal stimulus package recently signed into law by President Joe Biden includes $7 billion for school districts to get students and families connected to the internet at home, not just in the physical classroom.

That support will be very helpful now but doesn’t represent a comprehensive solution to the problem, advocates say.

Last month, Biden proposed a massive federal infrastructure investment package that aims to build universal broadband access in the United States by 2030.

“An emergency broadband benefit is great, but it’s just a start,” said Kim Keenan, co-chairwoman of the Internet Innovation Alliance. “This is not a problem that we can throw enough money at and it will go away. It’s systemic.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2021 edition of Education Week as Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don’t?

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