Many people think the "digital divide" and access to technology simply boils down to whether students have a working device and a reliable internet connection. But the needs—and the costs—are more complicated than that. K-12 school districts must plan for a variety of costs related to technology integration. Schools and districts are forced to haphazardly fund technology-enabled learning because of failures to do so in a consistent way at the federal and state level.
Though about 12 million students in the United States still lack any internet access at all—a problem cast into relief during the pandemic—there is good news: That number is steadily shrinking. Yet, even as the number of unconnected students declines, there is another group that, for years, has made virtually no headway. That is students who are “under-connected.” Students and families who are considered under-connected are those who have internet access and devices in their home, but not at a caliber or quality sufficient for smooth and consistent online learning.
For the children and families who don’t have reliable internet access, help has finally arrived. The Emergency Connectivity Fund, launched by the Federal Communications Commission in July 2021, is the country’s largest program ever to help students get the internet access they need at home to participate fully in virtual school.
It’s time for states to step up and realize that proper technology and WiFi connectivity are a must-have in public school districts, and that state policy is dangerously lagging behind. While systems might not continue to operate as 100 percent virtual schools in a post-COVID world, better access to learning technology is no longer negotiable in this increasingly-digital world. Hybrid schooling models can offer significant opportunities for personalized learning, from special education students to students in rural areas who don’t have adequate wireless connectivity at home.
The state of Connecticut is giving every student in grades K-12 a laptop and paying for their internet access. Recently, the state announced that it had achieved near-universal access for both device distribution and connectivity—a significant achievement in a state where 40 percent of households in some cities lack home access, according to census data. The program, known as the
Connected Nation finds that 47 percent of US school districts—6,132, to be exact, representing about one-third of public K-12 students—meet the 1 Mbps/student standard. Still, that means about two-thirds of students lack what Connected Nation calls “scalable broadband” in schools. The broadband gap isn’t only a problem for remote learning. “Early childhood” videos on YouTube nearly all have advertising. And as video dominates online instruction, more educators need easy-to-use resources for video creation.