Divide exacerbates equity issues that were present before pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic’s forced switch to crisis distance learning this spring exposed a digital divide that came as no surprise to educators. Distance learning — which even at its best cannot replicate the quality of in-person instruction — completely left behind thousands of students who lacked the equipment, technology, or internet access to participate. While we don’t know exactly how many students were impacted by the digital divide, we know that access to technology and broadband fell far short of what is needed.
When it comes to distance learning, nothing is more basic than access to the technology and internet, and that access for both students and educators was grossly inadequate this spring.
In May, when the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) surveyed the 24 school districts concerning their distance learning experience they found that:
· Less than 50% of students in three school systems have access to the internet either at home or at a location suitable for accessing online learning
· 50–80% of students have internet access in one school system
· 80–90% of students have access in seven school systems
· Just 13 school systems have 90% or more students who have access
Systems were asked to report specifically about their experience during the previous week. For the week about which the survey asked, the percentage of students who engaged with online distance learning was:
· 73–90% in eight school systems
· 90% or greater in three systems
· Unknown in three systems
· The remaining 10 systems collected data in such a way that they could not respond to the question
A Pew Research study found that a quarter of U.S. homes do not have broadband access, and Education Week found that lack of access disproportionately affected schools with high percentages of low-income students. However, for the purposes of its survey MSDE counted mobile hotspots and parking-lot access to wireless internet as access, boosting the numbers of how many appear to have internet access. But we know that students and educators, like Karen Ruark in Dorchester, should not be expected to find their way to a school parking lot for internet access and work from their cars. It’s far from ideal when educators teach while their own children try to occupy themselves in the backseat or students are dependent upon parents or older siblings to drive them to parking lots with access. We must do better.
The digital divide was a major concern for educators in a poll of MSEA members in May:
· 82% said access to reliable internet was a problem for students
· 44% said reliable internet was a problem for educators
While technology is just one piece of successful distance learning, it is an essential one. Some students, particularly in chronically underfunded schools, have not had a great deal of access to technology and devices at school or at home. When this lack of proficiency is compounded with lack of access or unreliable access, then the potential for inequities to expand grows.
Learning gaps that result from distance learning will disproportionately affect low-income students next school year. Although State School Superintendent Karen Salmon has echoed MSEA’s demand that equity must underpin the statewide recovery from the pandemic, the state’s recovery plan does little to realize that equity. With regard to digital access, the plan acknowledges but doesn’t offer solutions to the shortage of devices or access to the internet.
MSEA and local associations will hold MSDE and local systems accountable for a commitment to closing the digital divide and equity in general. Funding shortfalls nearly always impact districts the hardest where the inequity is the greatest.
Federal CARES Act funding will not resolve — but does help to close — the pre-existing digital divide and backfill expenses from the 2019–2020 school year. Congressional passage of CARES funding made $100 million available to local school systems to ensure student access to up-to-date devices and connectivity and for local staff who are necessary to deploy and maintain devices. The CARES Act also included discretionary funding for states; in Maryland $20 million will be used for rural broadband expansion, $10 million for K-12 technology, and $5 million for urban broadband. Still, the federal money only alleviates existing coronavirus expenses and doesn’t account for additional costs for the next school year. Our students will need more than level funding during the next school year to overcome the inequities exposed and deepened during this year’s crisis distance learning.
Additional federal relief is needed and would be available in the federal HEROES Act, HR6800. It would provide $60 billion to states for education, and as drafted would bring nearly $1.4 billion to Maryland for education. In addition to funding education equipment and staff specifically, the HEROES Act would provide $1.5 billion to help schools and libraries provide internet services through an Emergency Connectivity Fund at the Federal Communications Commission.
Educators have a committed ally in U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who has been a staunch advocate for the HEROES Act and improving digital access. In a recent teletown hall that included MSEA President Cheryl Bost and Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Van Hollen discussed the need to close the digital divide that exists nationally and the homework gap created when students have no access to a computer or the internet. Commissioner Rosenworcel shared statistics that demonstrated the urgency: 70% of teachers assign homework that requires internet access, and one in three houses has no access. While Sen. Van Hollen and Rosenworcel seek a national policy to supply internet connectivity, Sen. Van Hollen specifically flagged Maryland’s predicament: 12% of students lack access to devices and 16% lack reliable internet connectivity, a condition closely linked to poverty. HEROES Act funding can help to close these gaps and bridge the digital divide — but the Senate must take action to pass it, as the House already has.
Expect more conversations over the coming weeks at the state and local level about how to best close the digital divide. Whatever recommendations these conversations produce, they’ll require adequate funding to make them happen. We need to be activists at the federal, state, and local levels to secure the funding and equipment that our students and schools need to close the digital divide and address the underlying systemic racism and inequities that contribute to the divide and have worsened during the pandemic.