The Digital Divide: A Pre-Existing Condition for At-Risk Students

By Deepti Mani 

In March 2020, as schools across the country transitioned to remote learning, it was less apparent that remote learning would be the norm for the foreseeable future. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched from weeks to months, it exposed deep-rooted inequalities that have existed in various areas of society for years, and education was no different. The grave contrasts in educational access and infrastructure lay bare like never before. 

The Digital Divide 

The digital divide existed pre-COVID, where Black students, Hispanic students and students from low-income families lacked access to a home computer and internet connectivity. This lack of access caused an ever-widening homework gap, where students are unable to complete homework assignments and thus fall further behind their peers due to unreliable access to technology. 

Prior to COVID, nearly 60% of eighth grade students in the U.S. relied on the internet at home to get their homework done, according to a Pew Research analysis of data from the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Furthermore, based on 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, roughly 15% of U.S. households with school-age children did not have high-speed internet connection at home. “These broadband gaps are particularly pronounced in black and Hispanic households with school-age children – especially those with low incomes,” according to Pew. In a Pew survey, about a quarter of black teens, 17% of Hispanic teens, and 24% of teens with an annual family income below $30,000 said that they could not complete homework assignments due to lack of reliable technology, compared to 13% of white teens and 9% of teens with a family income of at least $75,000. Nearly 12% of teens said that they use public Wi-Fi to complete schoolwork. When it comes to computer access at home, “a quarter of lower-income teens do not have access,” according to Pew. 

Pew Research Study

More recent research from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group however, estimates that the homework gap is much larger than previously estimated. “Approximately 15 million to 16 million K-12 public school students, or 30% of all public K-12 students, live in households either without an internet connection or device adequate for distance learning at home, a higher number than previously recorded; and of these students, approximately nine million students live in households with neither an adequate connection nor an adequate device for distance learning.” 

Common Sense and BCG also shed light on the lack of technology access for teachers. According to their study, “300,000 to 400,000 K-12 teachers live in households without adequate internet connectivity, roughly 10 percent of all public school teachers, and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices.” 

With both students and teachers facing challenges to access, as Common Sense and BCG put it, “The homework gap isn’t just about homework anymore; lack of access to the internet and a distance learning device during the COVID-19 pandemic school closures puts these students at risk of significant learning loss.”  

Learning Loss 

Pre-COVID, Black and Hispanic students were about two years behind white students. The achievement gap between rich and poor kids was even larger 

Over the last six months, the unprecedented effects of the pandemic have hit Black students, Hispanic students and students from low-income households the most; only worsening the already wide gaps. According to analysis conducted by McKinsey, while the average COVID learning loss for students could be seven months, for Black students it could be 10 months, Hispanic students 9 months, and students from low-income families more than one year. McKinsey estimates that “this would exacerbate existing achievement gaps by 15 to 20 percent.” By 2040, when most of the current students will be working, the COVID learning loss could result in “a GDP loss of $173 billion to $271 billion a yeara 0.8 to 1.3 percent hit.” 

In May 2020, ParentsTogether Action, a national parent-led organization with over 2 million members, surveyed over 1,500 families in the U.S. regarding their kids’ education during the pandemic. The results only confirm the suspicions of many – remote learning affected vulnerable students the most. The survey compared responses from families earning a household income of less than $25,000 vs families who earned more than $100,000. They found that, “parents from low-income homes are ten times more likely to say their kids are doing little or no remote learning (once a week or less) (38% vs. 3.7%).” About 11% of kids from low-income families were going to a school that did not offer remote learning materials or activities at all, vs. 2% of kids from the higher income bracket. Also, low-income parents were “twice as likely to say remote learning is going poorly or very poorly (36% vs. 18%) and are more likely to say their kid’s work is mostly or entirely busy work (35% vs.19%). 

Quality Screen Time 

A 2019 study by Common Sense media found that tweens from lower-income homes averaged nearly 6 hours of screen media per day, compared to only 4 hours per day for those from higher-income homes.  

With increased time at home, away from school, afterschool activities and other social gatherings, kids are inevitably spending more time online. In a study done by Roblox, over half the teen’s surveyed (52%) say that during the pandemic “they are spending the same amount or more time with their real-life friends via Roblox, voice/chat programs, and other online gaming platforms.” Interestingly, 44% of teens reported that they are spending more time on their devices because parents are not being as strict. About a third of teens (30%) reported that their parents are showing more of an interest in their online lives. Remote learning has forced parents to be more engaged with what their children are doing online and is shifting their perceptions towards screen time. In a survey done by Morning Consult, 41% of parents said that screen time has a positive impact on their children vs. 32% who said it has a negative impact. 

New research from LEGO Foundation states that “children learn best when they are actively supported by an adult, and so parents especially can be more engaged in children’s play with digital technology.” And on the role of schools the study suggests that “given the influence that schools have on play with digital technologies in the home, there is an opportunity for all schools to broaden their understanding of how children learn through technology.” 

It is disheartening that in the middle of the pandemic, low-income parents reported that their children received busy work. The LEGO Foundation research shows that quality play with digital technologies "has a range of positive effects on children's knowledge, creativity and skills," as well as their emotional wellbeing. 

We see an opportunity to increase access for the most vulnerable students to high-quality digital learning tools. When over 124,000 schools closed nationwide, school district leaders and school administrators rapidly created plans for remote learning; access to internet-connected devices for the most vulnerable students and teachers became a top priority. How successful were school districts in closing the digital divide? How many students now have access to devices that they previously didn’t have? How significant is the unseen opportunity to bridge the equity gap with digital learning? We’ll explore more about these issues in future posts.

Deepti Mani

Deepti Mani was a Games and Learning Summer 2020 intern. She is a second-year student pursuing her Masters of Public Administration (MPA) at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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