No access: Remote learning widens US digital divide for students

Millions of US households with school-aged children do not have consistent access to computers or the internet, and the digital divide disproportionately impacts people of colour and low-income families.

To help students without internet access at home learn remotely during the pandemic, one Indiana school district in the United States made its school buses into free WiFi hubs. [Courtesy: South Bend School District]

In the rural school district where Nicole McCormick teaches music in West Virginia, learning is remote in more ways than one this year.

Situated amid dense forests near the Appalachian Mountains, Fayette County is a place where more than 20 percent of households do not have a computer, and nearly 30 percent lack broadband internet access, according to United States Census Bureau data.

Even those households that are online may lack the bandwidth to stream an online class. And that poses challenges for students relying on a mixture of online and in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you happen to be fortunate enough to be in a town, then you’re more likely to have reliable access than what we call the hollers, or the more out-of-the-way communities,” McCormick told Al Jazeera. “The school system gave out devices and they trained everybody how to use the devices, but if you don’t have the access, you don’t have the access.”

That's kind of been the gift of COVID-19 - it has made it impossible to ignore the societal inequities that have been becoming deeper and broader over the past couple of generations.

by Nicole McCormick, West Virginia music teacher

A lack of homegrown IT support is also an issue. Many of McCormick’s students are being raised by their grandparents, who may not be terribly tech-savvy. Grandparents are also at higher risk of death from COVID-19 and may not want their grandkids studying in school and then potentially bringing the coronavirus home.

“The opioid crisis really hit West Virginia hard, and so there is basically a lost generation of parents,” McCormick explained. “The responsibility to raise those children has fallen to their parents, but the people who are most susceptible to serious complications and deaths from COVID-19 are the elderly. So it’s a very difficult tightrope to walk.”

Across the US, a digital divide that predated the pandemic has only gotten wider as schools grapple with how to educate children when full-time, in-person learning still isn’t safe.

Some 4.4 million US households with school-aged children did not have consistent access to a computer as of September 28, and 3.7 million did not have regular internet access, according to an analysis of US Census Bureau figures by USAFacts, a nonpartisan data site.

Educators worry that the ongoing economic fallout means that when families are forced to choose between paying for food, medicine and the internet, the number of children without access could surge – along with disparities in education.

Intersectional crisis

Lack of internet access is just one of the barriers children from low-income homes face when it comes to education. McCormick said when the pandemic first hit, teachers in Fayette County checked in on families to make sure they had more basic staples, such as food and medicine.

Nicole McCormick, a music teacher in Fayette County, West Virginia, said some of the students at her school face challenges getting online at home [Courtesy: Nicole McCormick]

More than 22 percent of households in Fayette County lived in poverty before the pandemic, and just 47.4 percent of people over the age of 16 were employed, according to US Census Bureau data.

That gulf has continued to widen as the US labour market recovery has downshifted into low gear, with only half of the estimated 22 million jobs lost nationwide returning.

For families struggling to pay their electric bills or put food on the table, paying for internet access is a luxury they simply can’t afford.

Under her district’s current blended-learning plan, McCormick sees her students in person two days per week, and then teaches online to the kids with internet access. For kids without it, teachers send home paper worksheets and offer help by phone or after-hours tutoring sessions, she said.

But McCormick said many educators in her state sounded the alarm when the pandemic first hit back in March, cautioning that e-learning wouldn’t work if kids couldn’t get online – a warning she said went unheeded by the state’s leadership.

“They didn’t train people, they didn’t expand access, they didn’t do all the things that they could have done to make this a more workable situation,” McCormick said. “So we’re just kind of left doing what we’re always left doing in public education, and that’s dealing with the aftermath of poor political choices.”

A global problem

The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 463 million children worldwide – about one in three – lack access to the tools they need for remote learning. And as the pandemic grinds on, experts worry that disparities in who can access school now could have long-term consequences for children in the future.

“The educational divide and the digital divide are so tightly linked,” Peter Cookson, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.

In the US, children without regular computer or internet access are more likely to be from families of colour and low-income households, Census Bureau data shows.

A report by the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute found that Native American and Native Alaskan students were most likely to not have high-speed internet at home, with 27 percent lacking access, followed by 19 percent of Black students and 17 percent of Hispanic students.

“The biggest fear that I have is that the educational divide will be deepened by the digital divide, especially because it will continue for some time,” said Cookson. “This COVID crisis, the health crisis, the economic crisis, the struggle for racial justice – these things are not going to go away any time in the next month or so. This is going to be a long-term struggle, so we really need to address this problem in a deep way.”

Driving innovation

Some school districts are getting creative with how to help students get online, including turning school buses into mobile Wi-Fi hubs.

Rene Sanchez is the assistant superintendent for operations at the South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana. The sprawling district has 17,000 students, covers 414sq km (160sq miles) and includes cities as well as farms. A pre-pandemic survey by the school district found 30 percent of students did not have broadband internet access at home.

Sanchez said he got the idea for Wi-Fi buses while watching students travel hours to sports tournaments after class and then struggle to complete their online assignments on time. He thought buses equipped with Wi-Fi could help young athletes use the ride to get their work done. The district had already outfitted some buses with the technology when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and deployed them to parks, apartment complexes and empty restaurant parking lots.

When students went back to school virtually this fall, the district upped the number of Wi-Fi buses it deployed to 36. The Wi-Fi signal reaches about 91m (300 feet) in any direction, Sanchez said, so some students sit outside on chairs or blankets while others work in their parents’ cars or apartments.

The district has also opened up the Wi-Fi to parents who can use it to pay bills, send emails, apply for jobs or check the news. A state grant means the district hopes to have all of its school buses Wi-Fi-equipped by February.

The learning environment is everywhere. All of these different places, you can access Wi-Fi and it can help you get prepared for your schoolday tomorrow, your college applications or allow you to find whatever rabbit hole feeds your curiosity.

by Rene Sanchez, South Bend Community School Corporation

Winter is coming in Indiana, however, and temperatures can drop to below -34C (-30F). Sanchez said the district is trying to figure out how to best keep the Wi-Fi bus service going when it’s too cold for students to sit outside by the bus, including letting students on board to download assignments they can then work on at home.

Long term, Sanchez hopes this crisis makes everyone realise that learning doesn’t have to just happen within the walls of a school.

“The learning environment is everywhere,” Sanchez told Al Jazeera. “All of these different places, you can access Wi-Fi and it can help you get prepared for your schoolday tomorrow, your college applications or allow you to find whatever rabbit hole feeds your curiosity.”

Bridging the gap

Solutions to closing the digital divide are out there, Cookson said, but they require investment – including from the federal government as states struggle with economic crises. Cookson said he would like to see the government step in to expand broadband access and provide states with the funds they need to give students devices and internet access.

“It costs between $400 or $500 to actually set a kid up with a really good device and high-speed internet, so it’s a solvable problem, and some districts are trying to do that,” Cookson said. “The per-pupil cost is not huge, and it’s a great investment.”

The biggest fear that I have is that the educational divide will be deepened by the digital divide, especially because it will continue for some time.

by Peter Cookson, Learning Policy Institute

In order to be able to teach remotely herself, McCormick had to put her own four kids – four-year-old twins, a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old – in private school, something she never thought she would do. If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis, she said, it is that the pandemic exposed just how wide a gap there always was.

“That’s kind of been the gift of COVID-19 – it has made it impossible to ignore the societal inequities that have been becoming deeper and broader over the past couple of generations,” McCormick said. “There are no true social safety nets for people, but public school is kind of the only thing that everyone has access to, no matter what their income level is, no matter where they live.”

Source: Al Jazeera