New research released today shows technology access for remote students is better this fall than last spring, highlighting that schools responded swiftly to improve remote learning formats and increased in-person learning opportunities. The research, however, warns as COVID-19 cases rise this winter and schools revert to virtual learning, the digital divide will widen again.
By analyzing data from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey, the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in Los Angeles found inequitable access to technology and connectivity with African Americans and Hispanic students being 1.3 to 1.4 times as likely to experience limited accessibility as their non-Hispanic White peers. Disparities also exist based on income levels: Low-income households are most impacted by unavailability, with more than two-fifths of households having limited access to a computer or the internet, the data shows.
While school systems have worked to find solutions to technology barriers for remote students, permanent solutions are needed that could ensure educational equity by shrinking the digital divide even after the pandemic is over. "Remote learning, in some form, is now permanent," the report said.
The research shows the rate of limited digital access for households fell from a high of 42% last spring to about 31% this fall. This improvement to digital access may be explained by community efforts to improve connectivity for remote students. It may also be the result of more schools being open for in-person learning in the fall, which decreased the need for at-home digital access, the report said.
There are still disappointing levels of digital inaccessibility, wrote Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and the report's author. For example, from Aug. 19 to Nov. 9, 26% of households said students had no more than one virtual contact with a teacher over the last seven days. About a third of households studied reported “a significant reduction” in teaching-activity hours compared to before the pandemic.
The Center for Neighborhood Knowledge had previously analyzed the impact of remote learning in the spring.
The technology barriers combined with the reduced learning time could result in academic achievement declines particularly for students from low income families and students of color, said the report. “There's no question that the pandemic has massively disrupted schooling,” Ong said. Limited access to the internet, a computer and teachers “have real material consequences in terms of barriers to actual learning.”
Those challenges will likely continue into the winter as COVID-19 infections are predicted to increase, and as schools pause face-to-face instruction in order to keep students and staff safe.
Some school districts are developing innovative approaches to serving remote learners. Districts have used federal relief funding to buy devices and provide high-speed internet access. Other systems are working collaboratively with community partners to provide rural students with access to digital platforms and reliable internet. For example, the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, has partnered with SpaceX to use satellite-based technology to provide high-speed internet to students and teachers.
The report suggests K-12 education systems and their partners work on solutions that would eliminate the digital divide entirely. “We need to realize the world has changed,” Ong said. “The role of digital resources is now essential. Even after the pandemic it will become essential.”