Rapid paradigm shifts can introduce issues for any sector, but they’re particularly challenging in the field of education. School districts across the country are attempting to answer the call of remote digital learning at an unprecedented speed and scale, but they are facing huge inequalities in students’ access to technology and the imbalance in resources needed for digitally-enabled student-citizens.

Those who have been able to adapt swiftly to the current environment were largely those schools and districts in highly connected, digitally-enabled communities. Where student households had ample access to high-speed internet and technology devices, budgets could be directed to building a robust digital infrastructure of well-trained teachers, well-tested software, learning management systems and IT support capabilities. Consequently, they were well positioned for the swift disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, Title 1 schools – named for the provisions for serving immigrant and lower-income students in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and predominantly rural schools  – are attempting to serve a student populace mostly without ample access to online learning technology at home. Unfortunately, they are struggling because they lack the foundation of that same digital infrastructure.

What does that look like? In Tucson, AZ, some schools are facing a whopping 80 percent of students lacking access to online learning. In Minnesota, more than 40 percent of African-American and Latinx students have no devices or Wi-Fi at home. In Northern California, waves of students have already missed weeks of distance learning due to lacking devices or WiFi. In Miami, 29 Miami-Dade County public schools recorded average distance-learning attendance rates below 80% for the first two weeks of April. In Georgia school systems with fewer than 1,000 students, 56% of households don’t have high-speed internet available. 

Every community, state and the nation at large is grappling with how to close the divide.

Absenteeism was already a problem before the pandemic, but it’s now causing the chasm between well-funded students and low-income students to grow perilously wide. Teachers of low-income students are indicating that fewer than half of their kids are regularly participating in daily activities. Beyond straightforward academic process, getting connected online is critical to keep children engaged with their teachers, classmates and daily routines in extracurricular activities like school bands. The consequences of the disconnect could potentially derail years of academic progress and even affect the possible lifetime money-earning opportunities of these individual students.

“This really is a humanitarian crisis”, notes Beth Lambert, a Maine Department of Education coordinator of secondary education. “We will never make progress around equity and closing the achievement gap if we can’t close the digital divide.”

Fortunately, while this widespread disruption has brought it share of challenges, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to bridge this divide. The recent Phase Three Stimulus has set aside $13.5 billion in dedicated funding for K-12 education. Specifically, that funding can be allotted for serving remote educational programs during long-term closures, including provision of internet connectivity and internet-connected devices to boost access to distance learning. The relief also allocates $25 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Programs to support “distance learning, telemedicine and broadband”. This coincides with guidance from state/private foundations and enterprise managed mobile technology partners such as Stratix, who can help procure, deploy, support and track the tools needed for effective distance learning. There is now a clear opportunity for underserved districts and communities to leverage these funds and partnerships to build the digital infrastructure needed to bridge the divide.

Ultimately, the success of this initiative will depend upon the willingness of local actors to innovatively approach the issue. In the aforementioned Tucson, AZ school district, staff formed a Dropout Prevention Team to manage delivery of devices to hundreds of homes. Additionally, they began using school buses as WiFi hotspots, parking at various school lots so families could safely get online from their car and download critical assignments.

Even with creative solutions like these being deployed, teachers are still on the hook for fielding support calls from parents and students embracing digital learning for the first time. Funding still remains inconsistent from district to district. Indications are that post-pandemic virtual learning will comprise an increasingly significant part of K-12 education.

It’s become clear that multi-tiered digital education programs – encompassing device procurement/distribution, WiFi hotspot connectivity, help desk support, device administration and logistics – will be critical for bridging this persistent digital divide both now and in the years to come.