Multiplying Divisions

Daniel Ward argues that the digital divide is not just a connectivity problem

The sudden closure of schools across the U.S. is resulting in very different experiences for students depending on their ages, languages, zip codes, needs, and incomes. For some, the transition to online schooling has been an exciting, albeit occasionally frustrating, experiment, full of its own learning challenges but a workable solution to the edict of #shelterathome. For others, online school just doesn’t work.

“The pandemic is an educational equity crisis for vulnerable students who were too often underserved by our education system in ‘normal’ times,” according to Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust–New York.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the country’s second largest and the district with the most English Learners (over 120,000 ELs), is reporting that over 40% of elementary school students had not logged on to any school programs at all by the end of the first week in April—three weeks after schools shut down—and logging on is only the first step to actually learning online. At the end of the first week, the figure was 80%, and at high school, the percentage of kids logging on (at least once) has risen to 96%, so improvements are being made. The younger grades naturally have a larger percentage of ELs, so they are much more likely to be unable to study online.

These statistics remain despite the district’s spending of $100 million on devices and offering free internet access via mobile hot spots to all students who don’t have it. LAUSD is also partnering with local TV stations to air educational programs that coincide with assignments set by teachers.

The district has also set up a technology help desk for families and is working with community organizations to try to help homeless and foster care students get some access while schools are closed. Other districts are reacting to the situation too—Austin ISD, for example, has deployed over 100 school buses fitted with long-range Wi-Fi to neighborhoods and apartment complexes identified as needing internet access the most.


Big cities may have the largest concentrations of students without digital access, but the problem is even more pronounced in rural areas, where the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 35% of people live on the wrong side of the digital divide, and Tribal lands, where the figure rises to 40%. To help low-income families and immigrant students, the National Education Association is pushing Congress to include expanding Wi-Fi hot spots in poorer neighborhoods and hiring more translators in schools in the next economic stimulus package.

However, internet access alone will not solve the problem. Distance learning should be provided using tools specifically designed for ELs, and parents should be made aware of learning expectations in a language they understand. Instructional resources should be in multiple languages and formats, not just online. Instructional aides need to be made easily available to students by phone or chat throughout the school day, and school staff should look out for children whose parents have no access to sick leave or are unable to help their children for other reasons. And, all instructors need quality professional development specific to these tools and resources.

Unless we focus on the network of supports that have been established over many years to help our most vulnerable students access a quality education, the digital divide will only magnify existing social divisions.

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