Report: Nearly 12 million students still caught in digital divide

Though numbers improved during the fall, there are still large gaps that exist for remote learners that only federal funding may fix, experts say.
By: | January 27, 2021
Dmitry Ageev/Getty Images

Though the digital divide has lessened largely because of efforts made by school leaders, states and community partners, there are still almost 12 million K-12 students who are still facing challenges when it comes to distance learning.

According to a new report released by Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation, 20-40% more students have been able to connect to high-speed internet and 60% more have received devices since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the three organizations outlined in the report Looking Back, Looking Forward: What It Will Take to Permanently Close the K-12 Digital Divide that huge disparities still exist for low-income students and gaps might increase again as nearly three-quarters of those connectivity deals will expire in the next 12-36 months. They say further assistance is needed beyond those grass-roots efforts and partnerships.

“States and school districts have stepped up to tackle the homework gap during the pandemic. And while some support has flowed to these efforts from the federal government, it has been inconsistent and remains insufficient,” said James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “There remains a significant need to support states and schools that have stood up programs to close the homework gap during the pandemic, and to help them close the divide for good. It is incumbent on the federal government and state governments to ensure access to broadband service and devices, and to deploy future-proof broadband infrastructure that can meet the needs of students going forward.”

The cost of closing the divide for good? According to Common Sense, it would be between $6 to $11 billion for the first year, and $4 to $8 billion each year after. And that doesn’t include the costs to provide professional development, training and connecting teachers, which could run another $1 billion for the first year. In all, the high-end, $80 billion initial estimate might not even be enough to cover it.

“This is not a short-term problem. The digital divide predated COVID-19 and will persist beyond it without further action,” said Lane McBride, managing director and partner who leads Boston Consulting Group’s Education, Employment, and Welfare Engagement sector within the Public Sector practice in North America. “We need leaders in government, corporations, philanthropies, and the education sector to seize the moment and work together on practical and lasting solutions.”

The organizations say four problem areas need attention: broadband, affordability, digital skills and the trust of providers.

Broadband is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome. Nearly half of students in Southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi have struggled to connect, and the gaps have affected far greater populations from underserved communities across the country, notably Black, Latinx and Native American students.

Despite the efforts of K-12 leaders and educators to try to meet the needs of all students and get them on board in remote environments, the challenge has been too great. As learning losses mount, states have urged districts to go fully in person. Some school districts have called on families of students who are struggling or can’t get online to return to classrooms. President Joe Biden, in fact, has made one of his missions to safely reopen all schools for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration, and yet that may not happen.

In communities where COVID-19 spread is rampant and where testing and vaccine deployment have been slow to develop, remote learning may be the only option. Districts and communities have made huge investments in virtual education, too, so going fully back to the way learning was before the pandemic presents its own potential drawbacks.

What’s next?

Common Sense, Boston Consulting and the Southern Education Foundation suggest the expansion of investment in broadband, funding that ensures affordability for all and additional community support. Beyond that, they encourage the continued public-private partnerships that have happened during the pandemic.

“Fundamentally, this is a matter of equity that requires leadership at all levels—from the federal government to local communities,” said Raymond Pierce, President and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. “Some of the most successful efforts to bridge this divide have involved school districts working in partnership with local organizations and community advocates to meet families where they are, and to ensure access to the internet and the other technology students need to learn remotely.”

At the outset of the study, some 15 to 16 million students were said to affected by the digital divide, including 400,000 teachers. Though that improved by the end of the fall semester, those who were still unable to connect face huge obstacles now and in the future. The organizations estimate that students who are falling into these gaps might earn less income in the future, as much as 4% to 6% as their counterparts who are learning through this challenging period. Other studies show another perilous outcome – there could be 230,000 additional high school dropouts.

Some states have notably done their best to try to bridge gaps with device drives, grants and partnerships: Texas, Oklahoma, California, Ohio, Vermont and Alabama, have been ahead of the curve by helping with data plans and affordability. The states of Nevada and Connecticut have done well in ensuring devices and internet are available to all students.

Short of additional help from federal and state governments, districts should continue to meet the needs of all students – and that means going beyond simple surveys to talk with community leaders about additional help that can be provided. Districts also must stay wary of English-language learners and immigrants who might need further assistance beyond getting devices and internet connections. Schools should also continue to allow for professional development for their educators as needed, ensuring that students in each class are receiving robust and equitable learning experiences, especially in blended environments.


Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.