America came face to face with the festering problem of digital inequality when most of the country responded to the coronavirus pandemic by shutting elementary and high schools that serve more than 50 million children.
Even before the shutdown, an estimated 12 million children were having difficulty completing routine homework assignments — not to mention writing research papers — because they lacked the home internet access their better-off classmates take for granted.
The so-called Homework Gap has taken on crippling dimensions now that closed school districts have been trying to maintain a semblance of instruction by putting teachers or course materials online. Internet-savvy school systems that serve connected populations appear to be moving ahead relatively smoothly with the new order of business.
At the same time, some districts that lack infrastructure and serve heavily poor populations have given up altogether on remote learning. Still others are hesitant to pursue online instruction out of fear they might be hauled into court for offering course materials to which broadband-deprived families cannot gain access.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Federal Communications Commission member who has been proselytizing on this issue for several years, has rightly called on the F.C.C. to use funds earmarked for connecting schools and libraries to the internet to provide schools with internet hot spots that could be lent to students. Beyond that, some members of the Senate are urging Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to set aside dedicated funding that would help to narrow the digital divide.
These suggestions address the exigencies of the moment. But the time has long passed for the country to open the door to the information age for communities that are locked out.
The daunting challenge of trying to get distance learning up and running comes as school districts are already struggling to feed students who rely on school breakfasts and lunches to stave off hunger. An analysis of policy statements by 46 districts that was released last month by the nonpartisan Center on Reinventing Public Education found considerable confusion among districts about how to deal with issues of technology and internet access.
Only about a third of the districts said they were working to deliver laptops or tablets to students. Only five said they were delivering mobile phones or wireless hot spots to students, while more were encouraging parents to sign up for internet service. Few districts had comprehensive learning plans, and most were sharing links to “optional assignments on publicly available websites.”
This scramble is taking place in an atmosphere of uncertainty over how long the shutdown will last. Districts will need more money — and new expertise — if it turns out that a comprehensive online infrastructure is needed for the long haul.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES