The Far-Reaching Consequences of the Digital Divide on Ohio’s School Children
By Alison Paxson, Policy & Communications Associate
Many underserved Ohio communities are on the wrong side of the digital divide – and this has huge ramifications for children who, already struggling with homework and opportunity gaps, can no longer access the consistent supports of their school buildings
In November 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, an Ohio University student’s photojournalism project, “The People Left Behind in a Broadband World”, was picked up by The Wall Street Journal.
The story captured the real life challenges presented by a lack of internet access for rural southeastern Ohio communities. One image depicts a now strikingly familiar situation – a grandmother and her grandson in a library parking lot, illuminated by the overhead car light, using the WiFi to complete homework that required an internet connection they did not have at home.
Figure 1 Maggi Gifford and her grandson Hunter Blosser, 13, park outside the library in Glouster, Ohio, to use the Wi-Fi. The library reported that over 50% of their WiFi usage occurs after the library is closed. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-people-left-behind-in-a-broadband-world-11573501015
Today, as many families grapple with school closures and virtual learning, images like this one have become part of the public consciousness, especially as connectivity issues seem to touch more and more families. Of course, the “homework gap” – when school-age children cannot complete homework assignments requiring the internet because they lack connectivity at home (as exemplified in the picture) – was a pervasive challenge for many children well before the pandemic began. Despite the relative lack of coverage on this issue in the media, as of 2018, 435,368 school-age Ohio children lacked full digital access (meaning they had no broadband internet access and no devices capable of connecting to the internet at home).
Of the school children in Ohio who lack full digital access:
- 31% live in a household with at least one unemployed parent;
- 30% live in households with parents who do not have a bachelor’s degree;
- 34% live in a rented household;
- 21% live in metropolitan/urban households; and
- 32% live in non-metro households.
In fact, 45% of all children in households below the federal poverty threshold lack full digital access, and 28% of all Black, Indigenous, and other children of color lack access to broadband and a device. Even 15% of all Ohio teachers lack full digital access.
Ohio leadership has fortunately taken steps to promote digital access for children in light of the pandemic and continued virtual learning this fall, including allotting $50 million in state CARES Act funding to provide hotspots and internet-enabled devices to students through the BroadbandOhio Connectivity Grants. Among public schools, these grants were awarded to 173 rural schools $9.7 million, 151 small town schools $8.8 million, 96 suburban schools $6.1 million, and 49 urban schools $5.3 million respectively, helping more children get access to their virtual educations.
However, as the parking lots of fast food franchises and libraries continue to be critical digital lifelines for many families nationwide and across Ohio, there is still more to be done. The reality of the digital divide amid a pandemic and subsequent school closures represents a phenomenon much further reaching than what the term “homework gap” can aptly describe. It means that the hundreds of thousands of K-12 Ohio children who lack full digital access, representing approximately 23% of all Ohio children in 2018 (and possibly more now), are now experiencing a fully-fledged “education gap.”
Even if all children in K-12 did have access to the internet at reliable speeds, more challenges to virtual learning exist and are eroding equitable educational access and exacerbating the learning gaps we are already seeing.
A study released in June created statistical models to estimate how many months of learning would be lost as a result of school closures from March 2020 and throughout the fall. First, it found that learning loss among school-age children would vary greatly based on these key factors: access to remote learning capability; quality of remote instruction; home support; and student engagement. According to this study’s estimates, the average student has likely lost 7 months of learning, which is devastating enough, but when the study looked at these numbers disaggregated by race, it found that the average Black student would likely lose 10.3 months and the average Latinx student would lose 9.2 months.
The consequences are enormous, and especially so when we consider the role that our school buildings play in not only education, but also in child access to mental health and other supportive socioemotional services for students. Where the challenges of learning loss represent already sizable hurdles, we know that interventions exist and the harm done can be mitigated. The socioemotional well-being of our students however is an area where we are less capable of recovering lost ground. Much more must be done to address the toxic stress and trauma many children and adolescents are experiencing during this time.
Opportunity gaps already exist and threaten to increase if we don’t take action. Thankfully, there are some promising models for consideration locally, regionally, and statewide to expand digital access to school-aged children to address these opportunity gaps and prevent them from becoming opportunity chasms:
Municipalities have the power to give the internet to everyone – but first must target those who need it most.
While widespread broadband internet access and availability may require the federal government to step in and be effective in regulating and nationalizing this essential infrastructure, here in Ohio we are already seeing some municipalities stepping in and making broadband internet completely free to areas that need them most. Take Dayton, Springboro, and Yellow Springs, Ohio for example which are all using CARES Act dollars to install public, free WiFi in their municipalities. Dayton, Ohio has opted to specifically target residents of five public housing complexes in the city who face steep challenges to digital access.
Support teachers in virtual education training that emphasizes socioemotional learning along with learning standards.
Teachers need more support at this time to ensure they are able to teach in virtual environments. Rather than being separate from each other, socioemotional learning should underlie every aspect of an educator’s curriculum. One Schoolhouse, an online nonprofit, is one service that helps teachers, administrators, and counselors to recognize red flags in their students’ emotional wellbeing and helps them develop team networking strategies to ensure children do not fall through the cracks.
Pass a second stimulus bill with increased funding to K-12 schools.
The HEROES Act, passed by the House earlier in the summer with no action taken in the Senate, includes funds critically needed for our K-12 schools that could provide supportive services for students during this time.
Passage of the CORPS Act holds promise for addressing learning gaps in K-12.
The federal Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act is one promising piece of legislation that could help stem widespread learning loss for school children while also engaging young people in national service opportunities as tutors. Although not an “end all be all” solution to all of the challenges we are seeing in virtual learning, many studies have shown statistically significant effects that demonstrate its effectiveness.
Ensure initiatives to promote digital equity and inclusion outlive the pandemic.
Bottom line, addressing the digital divide will require more solutions than merely providing devices or free internet service, and small scale initiatives. As a society, we must plan long-term initiatives to bring reliable and adequate infrastructure and service to every corner of the state with plans for access that work for all Ohioans well after the pandemic and school closures are over.
*Photo Credit: Maggi Gifford and her grandson Hunter Blosser, 13, park outside the library in Glouster, Ohio, to use the Wi-Fi. The library reported that over 50% of their WiFi usage occurs after the library is closed. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-people-left-behind-in-a-broadband-world-11573501015