By Brian Louderback, Insight Enterprises.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, students from pre-K to higher ed in many rural and historically undeserved communities nationwide were struggling with the challenges of a lack of reliable internet access at home. In 2017, a report on America’s Digital Divide from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee found 12 million children did not have access to broadband internet at home, and these access problems were exacerbated in rural America, where only 62 percent of residents had access to broadband internet.
While in the classroom, these students had equal access to the internet as their peers. But the digital divide was laid bare by the fact that either traditional broadband service did not reach their home or that their family could not afford the costs of service. As a result, after-school access to computer labs or public libraries provided a stopgap for these students in many instances – but did not provide a long-term solution.
When COVID-19 sent students home for months on end – with roughly half of our students still not having returned to the classroom – the rise of virtual learning and the remote classroom threw a harsh spotlight on the inequity of internet access across the country. In many instances, students had to use unsafe and unreliable public Wi-Fi networks outside their homes to complete schoolwork and others simply have not been able to complete their schoolwork or attend virtual classes because of their lack of internet connectivity.
This is resulting in lagging education, as McKinsey & Company suggests that students on average are likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. For minority students, that gap is even wider – six to 12 months.
Local governments and school districts have worked to try to address this gap and find ways to stretch their budgets to support connectivity programs implementing new technology solutions to help bridge the digital divide and bring equitable access to broadband. With the passage of the CARES Act last year, the federal government provided critical access to funding that expedited districts’ abilities to put these technology solutions in place to establish the safe, reliable internet access their students needed without the risks of being on an unsecure, public network.