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'Digital Divide' puts a significant number of students at risk of falling behind

With almost every school in America utilizing some form of virtual learning in the Spring of 2020 in response to COVID-19, the longstanding inequities in education became glaringly more obvious. While some students were fortunate enough to have access to high speed internet, at home computers, and adequate parental assistance, others instead suffered from a lack of resources to keep up with their peers. Some lived in places not yet reached by internet service. Others did not have adequate computers. Some instead simply had parents unavailable due to work obligations, perhaps also forcing them into the role of caregiver of younger siblings. Closing the Inequity gap in education has long been a challenge. Too often one’s zip code reflects the financial resources available to the local district to tackle the issue. COVID-19 has shone a light on this issue and magnified it. In my home state of South Carolina, around 16,000 students went “missing” after schools closed down in March. At one point it was even more than that but schools and other agencies were finally able to make contact with some. It became painfully obvious that many of those students were suffering from a lack of resources that they would typically have within a physical school for some of the reasons previously mentioned.

It may be about to get worse as we head into an uncertain Fall with the return of schools. Locations of high infection rates may have to turn to virtual options again and the issue of inequity will again be problematic. According to a recent survey by ParentsTogether, four out of ten of the poorest students across the country were able to access remote learning more than once a week. By contrast, families in the U.S. who made over $100,000 saw nearly 83% of children access remote learning daily. According to a recent report, the lowest-income parents, making less than $25,000 a year were 10 times more likely than families making six figures and above to say their kids are doing little or no remote learning (38% vs. 3.7%). ( Students of exceptional needs suffer with the inequities of virtual learning as well. Our most vulnerable students need “in person” services that are lost in online learning. The ParentTogether survey asked parents of those children about their online learning experiences. Just one in five reported that their child received all of the services to which they are entitled. About 35% reported that their children did little to no virtual learning.

Identifying the problem is only the first step. The real challenge comes in addressing those inequities, which is even more problematic in the era of COVID-19. Many states are now recognizing the “digital divide” that is leading to a significant part of the problem but the devil’s in the details. It will take both funding and collaboration with the private sector that provides internet services to help close the digital gap. Funding will also be needed to provide more “take home” technology. But many state budgets are also suffering from the economic fall out of the virus. Simply put, there are no simple answers; however, in our mission to educate all children to the fullest extent possible, we must work together from the federal level, through the state level, and down to the local level to close the inequity gaps that COVID-19 has made more obvious. To do otherwise is to ignore the needs of a significant portion of the next generation.

(image below from the ParentsTogether national survey)

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