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The digital divide has left millions of school kids behind

US schools are going back to in-person learning as COVID ebbs, but the so-called homework gap will persist.

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This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

The coronavirus shined a light on the homework gap, or the disparity between the haves and have-nots when it comes to those students with laptops, tablets and high-speed internet and those without even basic online access. But the waning of the pandemic's threat is a stark reminder that this aspect of the larger digital divide was a problem long before, and will remain one even as things return to normal. 

But the seismic shift sparked by the coronavirus has some optimistic that more change is on the way. 

When schools across the country shut down in March 2020, more than 50 million students across the nation were forced to access their education remotely. This sent districts scrambling to replace their in-person instruction with some form of online learning. Some schools offered live video streams, while others posted assignments online and expected students to access content and assignments.

More than a year later, with vaccines more readily available, schools are starting to reopen more fully. But the digital divide and the homework gap haven't gone away, even with new attention and funding directed toward emergency relief. The CARES Act, passed by Congress at the outset of the crisis, gave an initial boost that helped many schools purchase devices for students who didn't have them and pay for broadband service.

An additional $50 billion was allocated for K-12 education in the COVID emergency relief funding passed in December. The funds, which are reaching districts now, can be used for a range of pandemic-related services, including distance learning. More money to close the digital divide is expected as part of President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan. 

Now, as educators and policy makers prepare for what's next, people are taking a hard look at where things stand and what lessons have been learned from this year.  

"The most exciting thing we learned about the homework gap during the pandemic is that schools are uniquely positioned to help close this divide for their students," said Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy for Common Sense, a nonprofit focused on education. "Pre-pandemic, we relied on a patchwork of solutions from low-income programs or benevolent service providers, grand programs from the federal and state government. But most of these programs were developed with no coordination with the schools."

Fazlullah said that's changing as schools see the real tangible effects of the digital divide. 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.

Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, has studied the digital divide for more than two decades. She agrees that the pandemic has given schools, as well as policy makers, an opportunity to jump-start efforts to bring digital equity to education. But she cautions that, as students return to the classroom, school leaders shouldn't abandon their efforts to improve digital equity for their students. 

"Schools are now rushing to get their students back into schools, because in many ways they think this will solve the digital access issues they have and the loss of learning some students have experienced," she said. "But what I fear is we're missing the opportunity to get our kids ready for a new digitally connected economy."

She said the past year has been a how-to-solve-the-digital divide pilot of sorts, with school districts, state governments and others trying out various solutions. Now schools are in a precarious moment in the crisis, and she is urging school leaders and policymakers in Washington to not let this moment pass them by in terms of making sure no student is left offline.

To help readers make sense of all this, we've put together this FAQ to give you a better sense of what the homework gap is, why it exists and how it can be solved. 

What is the homework gap? 

The homework gap is a term that's been used to describe the millions of children in grades K-12 for whom access to broadband services at home or access to suitable devices are unavailable, leaving them unable to access homework and other educational resources. 

One thing the pandemic has made clear is that the so-called homework gap is worse than we had thought. Pre-pandemic estimates put the number of unconnected students in grades K-12 at 12 million. A June 2020 study by Common Sense, EducationSuperHighway and Boston Consulting Group suggests that between 15 million and 16 million students, or 30% of all public school students, live in households without either an internet connection or a device adequate for distance learning, or both. 

Who is most affected by the homework gap?

Every state in the US has pockets of unconnected students in all types of communities, according to the Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group report. But it's most significant among rural households, particularly in southern states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi. It also disproportionately affects students in lower-income families. Roughly 50% of unconnected students come from families with annual incomes less than $50,000.

How did the pandemic worsen the gap?

When schools shut down, the coronavirus pandemic brought to the forefront the digital inequities within communities. But it also made the homework gap a more serious problem for students who lacked access. No longer was this lack of access to the internet or a suitable computing device just about not being able to get homework completed. Instead, students without a device or broadband access were cut off from their education almost entirely. 

"It was a homework gap pre-COVID," said Gaby Rowe, the project lead for Texas' Operation Connectivity, which used 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. "But now it's morphed into a much larger and more devastating learning gap post-COVID." 

Because the digital divide disproportionately affects students from lower-income families and students of color, a failure to address the digital divide will likely lead to a widening gap in student achievement, a problem that also existed long before the pandemic. Now the digital divide threatens to widen that gap, further marginalizing students who were already at risk of falling behind. 

Why are people still unconnected?

The overwhelming reason why students lack access to remote online learning is the cost and affordability of services and devices, according to the Common Sense Boston Consulting Group study. That report found that up to 60% of disconnected K-12 students, or about 9 million students, especially Black and urban students, can't afford digital access. 

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Up to 40% of disconnected students, or about 6 million students, face adoption barriers, such as a lack of digital literacy skills or the ability to get through the signup process for low-cost services. This group also included families that had language barriers in accessing service or that distrusted the internet because of privacy concerns.  

Roughly a quarter of students, or about 4 million, lack access to reliable broadband infrastructure. This reason mostly affected students living in rural regions, and it disproportionately affects Native American students. 

Why does it matter?

Solving the homework gap or digital divide issue for schoolchildren is important for several reasons. For one, it's essential that all students have equal access to distance learning because it ensures workforce development and readiness for the next generation of Americans. 

Also, research has long demonstrated that access to quality education can help break the cycles of poverty. There are early indications that students who have been unable to access distance learning over this past year are falling behind. 

Last, ensuring that households with K-12 students have access to broadband and affordable devices can go a long way in terms of solving the broader digital divide, providing greater access to employment opportunities, job training and remote health care for all Americans. 

Because the digital divide affects a third of students in the US, the consequences of not addressing the issue could be dire, experts say. Even though the vaccine rollout has improved in the US, the global pandemic is still far from over with variants of the virus still circulating around many parts of the world. Many communities in the US remain vulnerable to the virus, meaning schools could continue an on-again, off-again return to distance learning for the foreseeable future. Not dealing with the problem now will only exacerbate inequities in schools and throughout society that existed prior to the pandemic.

What's being done to solve it?

Last March, Congress allocated $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act funding to help schools close these gaps as they pivoted to virtual learning amid school closures. Several states also put CARES Act money to help address the digital divide and homework gap for schools. 

These efforts closed 20% to 40% of the K-12 connectivity divide and 40% to 60% of the device divide as of December 2020, according to the Common Sense and Boston Consulting report. But 12 million school-age students still remained disconnected going into 2021. This was due to a slew of issues, including poor broadband data, infrastructure and supply chain issues, and lackluster adoption of existing programs as well as inadequate funding to continue to address the issues. 

In December, federal lawmakers approved additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, including $50 billion that can be used for pandemic-related expenses including distance learning. But analysts say more than 75% of the existing efforts aimed at closing the digital divide for schools will expire within three years. This means that there's no long-term solution in place to ensure digital equity in the future. 

Some are hoping that Biden's infrastructure plan can help address some of these issues more broadly. He is calling for spending $100 billion to expand broadband in rural communities where access doesn't yet exist and to help make broadband more affordable across the country. Though the proposed spending makes up only a tiny fraction of the overall $2 trillion in spending that Biden wants to see Congress allocate for his infrastructure plan, the policy and political ambitions around the issue are huge.

Still, Common Sense's Fazlullah is optimistic that with support in Congress and among policy makers in Washington, progress can continue. 

"With policy changes and a commitment to providing necessary funding, we can close these gaps for good," she said. 

What still needs to be done?

Fazlullah says that more state and federal funding is necessary. The Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group report estimates that closing the digital divide will require between $6 billion and $11 billion in the first year and between $4 billion and $8 billion annually thereafter, to address affordability and adoption gaps. This doesn't include the cost of deploying new infrastructure, which some have estimated at $80 billion or more. 

In addition, the report recommends funding be targeted to achieve efficient use of funds. This includes adopting policies to enable bulk purchasing of devices and internet service with transparent, affordable pricing and digital inclusion support. Public policy should also encourage technology-agnostic investment and encourage broadband networks to be built  where it doesn't currently exist or where it's insufficient to meet student needs. 

Success will also require strong partnerships between the public and private sector to assess students' needs and to address issues. 

Turner Lee said that Congress also needs to make statutory changes to existing programs to ensure they have enough flexibility to direct federal dollars where they are most needed. For instance, she suggests expanding the federal E-rate program to help ensure broadband access in public housing and other public areas, like parks. 

"There are statutory restrictions that define where money for our existing programs can go," she said. 

She told members of the Trade subcommittee of the House of Representatives Ways and Means committee last week during a hearing that what is needed is America's Tech New Deal, a program that she said "would deepen investments already made by the private sector in high-speed broadband networks and also provide new models to use that infrastructure to create jobs, expand small businesses and reimagine delivery of services, including remote education, work and health care."