Digital divide may be wider than we thought

3 million to 4 million more students lack access than has been previously estimated
By: | June 29, 2020
It would cost $6 billion-$11 billion in emergency funding to provide all students with high-speed home internet access for online learning, according to a new analysis. (GettyImages/ZEPHYR)It would cost $6 billion-$11 billion in emergency funding to provide all students with high-speed home internet access for online learning, according to a new analysis. (GettyImages/ZEPHYR)

Approximately 15 to 16 million students—and as many as 400,000 teachers—may lack access to online learning and digital devices with the prospect of remote instruction continuing into the soon-to-begin new school year.

That’s 3 million to 4 million more students than have been identified by previous estimates of the digital divide, according to “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning,” a new analysis by Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group.

Southern states show the largest divides, but even among states with the smallest gaps, about 25% of students lack adequate internet access and risk falling behind academically, according to the report, which offers state-by-state data.

It would cost $6 billion-$11 billion in emergency funding to connect all kids at home, and another $1 billion to provide access to all teachers, according to the report.


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“This new data and analysis further highlight the urgency for policymakers, educators, and private companies to address this basic educational equity issue that affects kids in every state,” James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense, said in a statement. “Our report makes clear that during this age of distance learning, we have to act right now to close the digital divide that is leaving millions of kids behind.”

Details of the digital divide

Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama showed the largest deficit by proportion, while Texas, California, and Florida had the largest gaps by population, the report found.

Gaps were more pronounced in rural communities and households with Black, Latinx and Native American students.

About 10% of public school teachers—300,000 to 400,000—also lack adequate home internet connections to conduct remote classes.

The report calls on the private sector, school districts and education-support organizations to work together to close the divide.


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Many states have internet expansion plans focused on closing the digital divide and superintendents can play a school role in those initiatives, District Administration reported earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the newly-formed Digital Bridge initiative is also providing a playbook that school district leaders can follow to determine which students lack internet access and best practices for distributing laptops, WiFi hotspots and other essential devices, DA reported.

“Some school districts have made a lot of progress,” Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, the nonprofit that created Digital Bridge, told DA.  “But there’s still work school districts are going to have to do over the summer to make sure they’re ready for fall.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.


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