The digital divide is still an issue despite recent progress, study shows

Local educational agencies did an impressive job increasing access to computers and the internet during the fall school term, but there remains a persistent digital divide, especially for Black, Hispanic and low-income students, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in Los Angeles found Black and Hispanic students were 1.3 to 1.4 times as likely to experience limited accessibility to tech or the internet as their white peers. Additionally, low-income households are most impacted by unavailability, with more than two-fifths of households having limited access to a computer or the internet.

While district and county offices of education were able to increase access since last spring, the study, COVID-19 and The Digital Divide in Virtual Learning. shows the rate of inaccessibility has slowly increased since mid-October. The divide may worsen amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and resulting restrictions, authors of the report said.

“The disparities in limited technological resources for virtual learning is not just today’s education crisis. Falling behind increases the achievement gap, which has long-term social and economic implications,” Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Director Paul Ong said in a statement. “Digital inequality threatens to widen the racial and income gap as children become adults, contributing to an intergenerational reproduction of inequality. To avoid this tragedy, we must act immediately and decisively to close the digital divide.”

There was some good news, however, depending on how one interprets the findings. Data from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey shows the rate of limited digital access for households fell from a high of 42 percent last spring to about 31 percent this fall. According to the report, this improvement could be explained either by community efforts to improve connectivity for remote students, or it could simply reflect that more schools reopened for in-person learning in the fall, decreasing the need for at-home digital access.

There is no doubt that California has made great strides in recent years to close the digital divide in its schools, with a vast majority now meeting federal technological targets for digital learning. Districts have often led the effort at the local level. ABC Unified School District in Cerritos completed a five-year initiative called the Technology Integration Program in 2020. The program provides devices for every student in the district, as well as training for teachers and students, and infrastructure and technical support.

Meanwhile, the rural Earlimart Elementary School District, located north of Bakersfield in Tulare County, realized after achieving a 1:1 ratio for devices that not every student could actually use the technology at home — many families had no internet connection, either because a signal did not reach their home or because available plans were unaffordable. In response, the district used its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds to purchase two antennas that were installed at schools on either end of town to extend the cell signal to up to 800 families. Hotspots were also purchased with differing ranges, one within 1 mile and the other within 7 miles.

Part of the challenge will be maintaining this sort of momentum, as researchers concluded “these efforts help but only prevent a deteriorating situation from becoming even far worse. Policies and actions must go beyond remedying the pandemic’s negative effects to eliminating the digital divide entirely.”