With so many school districts around the country working feverishly to implement distance learning programs, there is no better time to talk about the digital divide and a student’s right to education.
While the term "digital divide" can be used to describe many instances in which marginalized kids and those that require assistive technologies do not have access to the technologies that they need to stay competitive with their more affluent peers around the world, what I want to address in this article are the millions of K-12 students across the United States who don’t have internet access at home.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Condition of Education 2019 report, in 2017 just 49% of families making less than $20,000 a year had home internet access. And of the families who didn’t have home internet access, 34% said they could not afford it. That's three million students. To put this number into perspective, this would be like shutting down internet access to the entire state of Nevada.
We have to figure out how to bridge this gap or these kids will continue to fall further and further behind. And, with so many of our students struggling to finish out the academic year from home simply because they lack internet access, now is exactly the right time to not only be talking about the digital divide but, more importantly, to be doing something about it.
Amid nationwide school closures due to COVID-19, we’ve all witnessed the outpouring of support from school districts, as well as businesses like T-Mobile, Zoom, and Schoology, to support marginalized kids with things like free Wi-Fi usage, lowered prices, and free conferencing services. And now we need to build on these efforts to address the chronic, underlying problem.
COVID-19 has shown us that digital equity isn’t some future-state to be addressed at some ambiguous date down the road. The current inequity needs to be addressed today. Not because of the next pandemic or natural disaster but, because, when the outpouring of goodwill comes to an end, many of these students will still be at a disadvantage compared to their classmates. This disparity has negative consequences for all of us.
In today's world, internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Just as students cannot learn without proper shelter, nutritious food, and safe spaces, neither can they learn without the right tools. This isn’t an academic exercise: when these students leave school they will be ill-prepared to achieve in a fast-moving world dominated by digital technologies and constant change.