Lack of Internet Access Is Preventing Millions of American Children From Accessing School Online

Supermajority Education Fund

April 9, 2020

More than four out of 10 American teenagers say they have not taken a single online school lesson or virtual class since their schools were forced to shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a new Common Sense Media poll conducted between March 24 and April 1. The authors of the study cite the impact of the “digital divide” a term that refers to the lack of reliable access to computers and the internet — as one factor contributing to this finding.

The digital divide is most stark among rural and low income students across the country, and, in this study, was evident in the differences between public and private school students’ online class attendance. The survey found that 47 percent of public school students reported not attending an online class since their school shut down compared to just 18 percent of teens who attend private school.

The digital divide has been persistent prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and this outbreak is surfacing many of those inequalities in ways that are deterring the ability to make smoother transitions to employment and education,” Nicol Turner Lee, a research fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, told Supermajority News. “There’s a large chunk of the U.S. population who are not able to have their children learn at home or remotely.”

The Federal Communications Commission found last year that more than 20 million Americans could not access broadband internet and other studies have indicated the number is even larger than that. Even before this pandemic led to school closures across the country, Common Sense Media estimated that 12 million K-12 students did not have access to the Internet at home, which meant that many struggled to complete assignments and research projects.

Turner Lee says that to close these gaps, policy makers need to make broadening internet accessibility a priority. “I think educational school districts have not been as creative as healthcare in response to the disease to this virus,” she said, noting that in contrast to the education sector, public health officials have been working to create mobile health clinics and testing sites. “We’ve got to be radical.”

In a March paper, Turner Lee recommended that schools utilize school buses and drivers to park in densely populated neighborhoods with high numbers of low income students in order to create mobile Internet hotspots. Districts could also create lending programs that loan out mobile wi-fi devices to students in need.

Turner Lee hopes school districts nationwide come away from this current education crisis determined to create “a digital strategy that will make districts much more resilient in times like this,” she said.

Many private and charter schools have long standing programs to outfit students with laptops and internet access, Turner Lee notes, which proves that it can be done. “We could really have had our kids connected by now and we are suffering from the ramifications of that.”