A digital divide haunts schools adapting to viruses

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When April Schneider’s children returned to in-person classrooms this year, she believed they were leaving behind the struggles of more than a year of remote learning. No more problems with borrowed tablets. Gone are the days of missed classes because her kids couldn’t log into their virtual school.

But cases of coronavirus in her children’s classrooms in New York and subsequent quarantines sent her children back to learning at home. Without personal devices for each child, Schneider said they were largely left to do nothing while stuck at home.

“So you walk away, without a computer, and you’re back to square one as if COVID had just started all over again in a smaller form,” Schneider said.

As more families return to remote learning amid quarantines and school closures, reliable and consistent access to home devices and internet remains elusive for many students who need it to keep up. their schoolwork. Home internet access for college students has improved since the pandemic began with help from philanthropy, federal relief funding and other efforts — but obstacles remain, including a lack of devices, slow speeds and financial obstacles.

Concerns about the digital divide have shifted to families who are “underconnected” and can only access the internet sporadically, said Vikki Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University.

“It’s about whether or not you can withstand the disruptions of these quick pivots in a way that doesn’t derail your learning,” she said.

In two studies, one conducted in 2015 and the other in 2021, Katz and other researchers surveyed low-income families with young children. While rates of home Internet access and computer ownership have increased significantly, the proportion of low-income families with unreliable or insufficient Internet access has remained about the same.

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A year into the pandemic, more than half of families surveyed by Katz reported that their children’s ability to connect to online classes had been disrupted in some way.

Racial and income divides persist in home internet access, according to data from the Pew Research Center. A survey conducted in April 2020 found that during the first school closures, 59% of low-income families faced digital barriers, such as having to log in from a smartphone, not having a device, or having to use a public network because their home network was not reliable enough.

About 34% of households earning less than $30,000 reported having trouble paying their home internet bill, as did 25% of those earning between $30,000 and $50,000. Compared to white households, black and Latino families were less likely to have access to broadband and a home computer.

For the children at Schneider, not having enough assistive devices at home in the previous school year for remote learning meant missing homework and class. The children found it difficult to concentrate on their work, even though they received homework on paper. During quarantine periods this year, she said, they were largely unable to participate in any instruction.

“Without the gear…their experience was that they were more on the back than on the step,” Schneider said. “As soon as they said the school was going to back down … I just had to take a chance and send them off. They no longer needed to leave school.

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Even before the pandemic sent most schools to some form of remote learning, classrooms increasingly embraced the role of technology in teaching, creating a “homework gap” between those who have and do not have access to the internet and devices at home. According to pre-pandemic census data, about 2.9 million schoolchildren lived in households without internet access, and about 2.1 million lived in households without laptops or desktops.

Some families are frustrated that more hasn’t been done to close the gap.

When her grandchildren’s Pittsburgh school switched to online learning in March 2020, Janice Myers and her four grandchildren shared a single laptop. One month she struggled to pay the internet bill on her fixed retirement income. She tried to access the company’s $10 monthly fee designed to keep low-income kids connected during the pandemic, but said she was told she didn’t qualify because she was an existing client.

This school year, the children were adjusting well to in-person learning until a quarantine sent them home for a week, Myers said. Around Thanksgiving, the school closed in-person classes again, this time for nearly three weeks. Both times the school did not send the children home with tablets, leaving them with little instruction except for a thin packet of worksheets, she said.

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“In my opinion, you’ve had an entire school year to learn how to better prepare, be proactive, and incorporate a plan B in a heartbeat,” she said. “There was no reason why every student, when they returned to school, shouldn’t receive or keep their laptop.”

Among the districts using some of their federal relief money to improve home internet access is the Chula Vista Elementary School District in California, which is building the cost of hotspots and other internet services into the budget for the next three years. It prioritizes internet hotspots for children who have the most difficulty connecting to school, such as foster children and young people in housing instability.

Deputy Superintendent Matthew Tessier said the district discovered that many low-income families could access the Internet through a wireless phone, but faced limitations such as data caps and set monthly minutes. These caps often made it difficult for children to connect to homework and online resources even before the pandemic.

Identifying the children who need them the most and having devices ready to use can help minimize the impact of learning disruptions, Katz said.

“All of these conversations that we keep having about learning loss, whether or not we should use that term, place responsibility and blame for what children have learned on students and family…instead to recognize that it’s still the school’s responsibility to close that gap when they send kids home,” Katz said.

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