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The Digital Divide and COVID-19

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The primary obstacle preventing widespread adoption of streaming media for pre-college education has been the long-standing problem of the digital divide. This means that schools cannot design their curricula around an assumption of network availability for students (or teachers) and must avoid inadvertently widening social inequalities. At the federal level, closing the digital divide is a task that falls to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). This organization provides federal leadership on wireless spectrum policy and wired network build-out and is a few years removed from full responsibility for the global DNS system. The NTIA also works with the U.S. Census Bureau to publish the “NTIA Internet Use Survey” roughly every 2 years. The most recent survey came out in June 2020, featuring data as of November 2019.

The most relevant demographic from the survey is "School-aged Child in Household." For this population, it shows a steep decline in desktop computer use since 2011 (down to 23.7% from 47.5%), steady laptop use (43.6%), and a strong trend of smart TV use (44.6%). An impressive 86.2% of this population has hardwired internet service at home, hav­ing slightly overtaken households without kids (85.5%). The digital divide has been steadily shrinking since the NTIA began tracking broadband adoption, but it re­mains substantial.

In the October 2019 issue of Streaming Media, I investigated what teachers who want to introduce video into their curriculum can do to avoid leaving out students who don’t have good internet access at home. The article makes the same assumption that the NTIA’s Broad­bandUSA program makes: The best way to provide public internet access to communities with low broad­band adoption rates is at places like libraries, hospitals, and other trusted lo­cal institutions.

Unfortu­nately, neither I nor Doug Kinkoph, a key broadband champion at the NTIA, built that plan for a scenario that involves both staying at home and widespread remote learning at K–12 public schools. Great internet access at the library is of little use to students when the doors are shuttered.

This fall, many school districts have concluded that completely closing the digital divide in their community is a more tractable problem than managing the COVID-19 outbreaks that face-to-face instruction at brick-and-mortar schools could cause. Districts around the country are getting kids connected to whatever networks are available for remote learning. The Atlanta Public Schools district partnered with Comcast for the Get Our Kids Connected campaign. This effort solicits sponsors for Comcast’s steeply discounted Internet Essentials package, which is available to eligible households for $10 per month. The Dallas Independent School District issued mobile hotspots to students who don’t have internet access. The Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Connected Futures program provides students who don’t have home internet with 6 months of 4G data. The Baltimore City Public Schools are subsidizing both wired and wireless internet while also seeking to expand on a grassroots mesh network to deliver coverage in areas where internet adoption is the lowest.

My own community of Champaign, Ill., was a recipient of a $22 million grant from the NTIA about a decade ago to build a fiber network in neighborhoods with low internet adoption rates. Our school district has built wireless mesh networks on top of it to provide free municipal Wi-Fi for students in areas with the highest density of need and supplied mobile hotspots and subsidized Comcast Internet Essentials subscriptions where needed in areas with lower density. For rural school districts, there are few good options beyond adapting the original BroadbandUSA plan of delivering network access wherever students can safely congregate and offering families a choice of in-person or remote learning to decrease the number of students in the schools.

When the dust settles and the pandemic recedes, these efforts could have ramifications for public education: Schools may emerge re-energized with robust new teaching tools, or home schooling with a remote component may prove an attractive long-term option for a disruptive proportion of families.

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