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5 Insights for How to Tackle the Digital Divide During the Coronavirus and Beyond

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The "digital divide" and the "homework gap" have been urgent topics in K-12 education for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic is putting them in the spotlight. 

As of last year, more than a quarter of U.S. homes lacked internet access, according to a Pew Research Center report. Twelve percent of teachers who answered a nationwide Common Sense Media survey last year said more than 60 percent of their students don't have enough internet access to complete homework assignments outside of school.

In a recent Education Week Research Center survey, more than half of respondents from districts with more than half of students who are low-income said technology access is a major challenge during extended school shutdowns. 

Here's a look at how unequal access to the Internet is affecting schools, how policymakers are thinking about addressing concerns, and where to look for helpful information to bridge tech equity gaps.

Families that need internet access don't know where to find it.

During a virtual call Tuesday with Sen. Chris Van Hollen and superintendents of several Maryland districts, Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel said some communities don't have internet access at all, while for others, "broadband exists but they can't afford it, they don't see it as relevant, they don't see it as necessary." Both are urgent issues, she said.

There are resources for those families who might not know where to turn now that the need for internet access is more urgent. Several states—including Georgia, South Carolina, and Illinois—have created online tools such as  maps that note places where public Wi-Fi is available. Pew Research Center has been tracking the evolution of broadband nationwide.

Even schools that already had digital devices need new equipment to send them home.

Several Maryland superintendents said their schools already had thousands of Chromebooks for classroom use. But in some cases, those devices were only usable if connected to a power source in the school building. 

Baltimore City Public Schools recently purchased more than 14,000 power cords so students could take home their devices, according to Sonja Santelises, the system's CEO. 

Kelly Griffith, superintendent of Talbot County Public Schools in Maryland, summed it up: "Sometimes you have all that connectivity in a building, but when you send them all home, it's another story."

Creative solutions are emerging.

The challenges are steep for places like Talbot County, which spans 600 miles of waterfront and includes one school on a small island, Griffith said.

Districts have turned to a number of sources for relief, including telecommunications companies. Allegany County Public Schools in Maryland, for instance, has partnered with AT&T to establish Wi-Fi hotspots near community centers like fire stations, said Nil Grove, the district's chief technology officer.

Public television stations across the country have begun distributing educational materials, while school buses in several states have been repurposed to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots in areas with a high number of families without access.

The Tennessee state government, meanwhile, has offered nearly $20 million in grants to broadband providers to help them provide access for nearly 31,000 underserved residents of the state.

Younger students and multi-student households are particularly stretched.

Some students have taken part-time jobs to help their families bring in extra cash, or they've assumed babysitting duties for their siblings if their parents are essential workers who have to leave during the day. That means teachers need to be capable of recording lessons and posting them online for students to consult later, said Monica Goldson, CEO of Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland.

Her district has distributed 65,000 Chromebooks and 5,000 hotspots, she said. More than 70 of its school buildings are now outfitted with an antenna so families can access the internet from the parking lot.

"This is just the beginning of us trying to put a dent" in the digital divide, she said.

Officials in charge of the nation's communications networks don't yet agree on how to solve the problem.

The FCC is made up of five commissioners, and is controlled by Republicans. The commission currently comprises three Republicans and two Democrats, including Rosenworcel. It has taken several steps so far to ease the burden on schools, including extending key deadlines on the federal E-rate program to provide schools with more flexibility.

The agency has been in talks with Congress on the possibility of directing funds typically used for school buildings toward providing more broadband service to families' homes.

Rosenworcel said Tuesday that she believes the FCC has the authority to direct e-rate funds for educational purposes, But, she said, "There are five commissioners. I'm one. We're going to need three of us. Right now, this point is a little tense among my colleagues."

During the Tuesday call, she urged Van Hollen and his colleagues to support policies that will help close the digital access gaps. 

"When this crisis is over and we're on the other side, let's not stop," she said.

Image: Getty

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