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How the homework gap may actually be the key to solving our digital divide

Schools across the country during the past year of distance learning have had access to important data on who has access to broadband and who doesn't.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read
School playground in front of rolling hills

After schools were ordered to shut down last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Freeman School District in Rockford, Washington, surveyed families and put together a map to determine where broadband was available and where it wasn't.

Freeman School District

When schools shut down in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Freeman School District in Rockford, Washington, like districts across the country, scrambled to put in place a remote learning plan. The good news was that it had already begun rolling out a program to get every student in its 900-person district a device to connect to the internet. This meant the school district had gear for each student to access learning tools remotely. 

The bigger problem was that pockets of students throughout the mostly rural school district, 15 miles south of Spokane, lacked access to broadband service or even cellular LTE service. 

The trick for Freeman School District was figuring out where those dead spots were and how to get students connected, said superintendent Randy Russell. For students who could get cellular service but who lacked internet service at home, the district provided mobile hotspots. But for those for whom access was simply not available at their homes, students could access the school's Wi-Fi network from the school's parking lot or the parking lots of the library or local Starbucks. For students who couldn't get access to any kind of service, the school provided paper packets. 

Locating local internet providers

"We had to figure out a game plan for every single family," Russell said.

Almost immediately, the district began surveying families and piecing together a detailed map of where service existed and where it was lacking. By the time school started in the fall, the district was able to ensure that every student had access to the internet. Some students were still using Wi-Fi hotspots, others were connecting to the community or school-based Wi-Fi from parking lots. And many families in the district formed small cohorts or pods of students in their homes and they organized themselves to ensure kids who lacked access had somewhere to go to access online learning. 

Locating local internet providers

"The map really helped us troubleshoot," Russell said. "We could say, 'Oh yeah the Russells over there on Elder Road have no internet. Cougar Wireless only goes this far over there or Verizon goes this far.'"

He said with that knowledge the district was able to provide an extra level of support to students who were disconnected. 

But beyond supporting students, that information, being collected by schools across the country, could prove useful when addressing the problem of the digital divide. It's a significant gap: The Federal Communications estimates that 14.5 million people still lack access to broadband internet, while BroadbandNow, which tracks internet service and pricing, puts the figure of unconnected Americans at around 42 million. While President Joe Biden has an ambitious $100 billion plan to build out internet infrastructure, one of the problems remains identifying where the gaps actually are. The work to close the so-called homework gap, exacerbated when the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and forced 50 million students to suddenly adopt remote learning, could also provide the federal and state governments a roadmap toward fixing the broader digital divide problem. 

Russell said his district and districts across the state were able to feed the information they gathered on online access and attendance to state officials. Those details were critical as legislators tried to figure out how to help schools during the pandemic and where to direct federal funds from the CARES Act. 

"The CARES Act dollars were super beneficial to our district," Russell said. "We weren't only able to get PPE, cleaning supplies and masks for our staff, but it also helped us with some of the technology like providing some of the Wi-Fi hotspots kids needed."

Despite federal and state efforts to close the homework gap -- a term used to describe students who lack broadband or equipment like tablets or laptops -- 12 million students are still falling further behind, according to a report from Common Sense and the Boston Consulting Group. 

The digital divide

The homework gap is a subset of a much larger digital divide that exists between people with and people without access to high-speed internet. For millions of Americans, the digital divide exists because they live in a rural part of the country where broadband infrastructure simply isn't available. For other families in rural and suburban markets, broadband service may be available but unaffordable. 

It's an issue that has dogged policy makers for years. Biden's $100 billion plan to bring broadband to every American comes on top of billions of dollars in funding the federal government has already promised to connect unserved communities. Yet a fundamental problem persists: The maps the federal government uses to determine where it sends money to bridge the digital divide are grossly inaccurate

The problems with the current system for collecting the data stem from the fact that the data isn't granular enough, so it may say an area is covered with broadband when, in fact, it could be only one address with access. 

Republicans and Democrats on the FCC and in Congress have long agreed that the data for mapping needs to be improved to get an accurate picture of where broadband exists and where it doesn't. And they've pledged to do something about it. But getting that data has proven difficult and time-consuming. Officials at the FCC don't expect more accurate maps to be ready until next year. 

Silver lining in the pandemic

This is where policy makers could find help from the yearlong experiment on distance learning that schools across the country were forced to undergo. If school districts and others working at the local level were collecting and mapping areas to assess basic broadband and computing needs, it could provide a wealth of knowledge that could be fed into databases mapping the digital divide. 

"Schools are proving to be very valuable partners in figuring out the needs of the community -- including where broadband does and does not exist in their communities," said Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy for Common Sense, a nonprofit focused on education. 

Common Sense partnered with the Boston Consulting Group, EducationSuperHighway and Southern Education Foundation, to publish three in-depth reports over the past year looking at the magnitude of the divide and potential solutions.

Fazlullah added that schools are uniquely positioned to be able to collect data about students' broadband access and to marry that data with other information about students. This includes not just whether service exists, but also service quality and the types of applications being used over that connection. Schools also already collect demographic and socioeconomic data, which can be useful in tracking and analyzing the root causes of why students may not have service. 

Together, this gives school districts the ability to track the digital needs of students over time in order to give state and federal policy holders a snapshot of the need, as well as the cost and service quality of the broadband access that's available in the local community. 

"If schools are able to work with their states to highlight these gaps, they could be an amazing resource," Fazlullah said.

Still, Fazlullah acknowledges that the data collection effort has been haphazard at best. There hasn't been a uniform way in which schools collect or report this data. And given the local control and differences among states, it's unlikely that a centralized or cohesive system can be put in place quickly.

Texas: Go big or go home

In Texas, there's Operation Connectivity, a partnership between Gov. Greg Abbott, the Dallas Independent School District and the Texas Education Agency, created to connect all of Texas's 5.5 million public school students with a device and reliable internet connection. The organization came together last spring, after the pandemic hit, to figure out how to use federal CARES Act money to coordinate the bulk purchase of 1 million computing devices and 500,000 hotspots for students throughout Texas during the pandemic. 

One of the first things the organization did was to assess the situation. They needed to know where devices and services were most needed and where internet was lacking, said Gaby Rowe, the project lead for Operation Connectivity. 

"Data was definitely our biggest barrier when we first started this project," she said. "We couldn't fulfill our mandate from the governor if we didn't know where the resources were needed."

Watch this: Why millions of Americans still lack broadband at a time when it's no longer optional

But there was no detailed map or data set available to get the information they needed, so Rowe said her group joined forces with Connected Nation Texas, a statewide initiative that had already been funded to create a broadband map to highlight gaps in coverage. Connected Nation Texas was already working with service providers to collect data about where they offered connectivity. Operation Connectivity was able to gather information from the Texas Education Agency and school districts along with service provider data from Connected Nation Texas to get a more accurate picture of what students needed and where. 

Through this effort, Operation Connectivity was able to identify roughly 2 million students, or more than a third of the total, who had access to broadband but weren't signed up for a service, either because they could not afford it or there was some other barrier, such as privacy concerns. The group also determined that about 350,000 students had no access to broadband at all. There were about 700,000 students who had access to only one broadband provider, many of whom were likely underserved and with speeds insufficient to support most distance learning. 

Coordinated efforts

The lack of good data that is both precise and accurate is a major problem for solving the digital divide, said Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, who has studied the digital divide for more than two decades. 

"We don't know how many people are using what type of technology," she said. "So we do need to do a better job of ensuring that we have this data first, because without it, our efforts to accelerate broadband deployment just won't work."

Turner Lee said data collected from school districts and local officials could help build a better picture of what's needed where. 

"It took a crisis for us to recognize the need for this local and national data," she said. "Before the pandemic, many school officials had no clue who their local wireless or broadband service providers were." 

She said that some still don't have this information. But she added it's important that schools recognize that gathering this data and helping families connect to the internet should be part of their outreach in this new age of distance learning. 

"This crisis has really repositioned schools as a partner in the community," she said. She has been pushing states to require that districts collect this data by asking a few simple questions, such as, 'Do you have broadband access at home?'"

But she added that the real heavy lifting to solve the digital divide must still come from the federal government.

"It's become very apparent that broadband is a critical infrastructure asset like our water, electricity and energy system," she said. "We need a New Deal-era type of approach with a coordinated federal response to address infrastructure deployment, adoption and use, so we have workforce opportunities in building this infrastructure. And we have to resolve that no child should ever be left offline again."