This commentary was published in CalMatters on January 5, 2021.
With coronavirus cases spiking across California, districts have paused or delayed plans to reopen schools. Most school districts will continue to rely on distance learning for the coming months.
Prior to Governor Newsom’s recent proposal to provide $2 billion in incentives for California schools to reopen for in-person instruction for younger students, Los Angeles Unified last month reversed course on it school reopening, while a growing number of districts—including San Bernardino, the state’s seventh largest—announced plans to keep students in distance learning for the entire 2020–21 school year.
Without equitable access to broadband internet and digital devices, many students are at risk of falling behind or dropping out, exacerbating educational inequities.
California’s Persistent Digital Divide
The digital divide is a decades-old challenge for California, but the pandemic has lent it renewed urgency. The switch to distance learning last spring left a staggering number of K–12 students ill equipped to participate fully. US Census Bureau data show that slightly more than one in four California students did not always have internet access available. The share was even larger among children in low-income (43%), African American (39%), and Latino (33%) families. Reliable access to digital devices was also a challenge. A third of all households did not always have a device available for learning, including half of low-income households.
Remarkable Improvement in Device Access
Since the onset of the pandemic, California has invested in a number of efforts to narrow the digital divide, including allocating $5.3 billion mostly from the federal CARES Act and creating partnerships with the private sector. School districts have also stepped up by purchasing additional devices for student use.
These efforts have helped increase device access at home, with the share of students who always have a device available for educational purposes jumping from 67% in the spring to 79% in the fall. Gains were especially large among low-income students and African American students—with the latter seeing an increase from 58% in the spring to 83% in the fall. Latino students also saw an increase, though they still have less device access than other racial/ethnic groups.
Internet Access Remains a Major Challenge
Yet despite progress in expanding device access, internet access remains a widespread problem. More than 30% of Latino students still lack reliable home internet, as do nearly 40% of low-income students—essentially unchanged from the spring.
The economic downturn has compounded this challenge, with an outsized impact on low-income communities and communities of color, where many struggle to meet basic needs. Directing additional resources to families who lack broadband access—especially given that most students share internet with family members—could help remove one barrier to participation in distance learning as school closures continue.
The Right Policies Can Help Close the Gap
Far from being an equal-opportunity crisis, the coronavirus has disproportionately affected low-income students and students of color. California’s digital divide created problems for millions of students last spring and continues to impede learning today. Narrowing inequities will take further investment—and swift action by policymakers.
Existing programs, such as the federal Lifeline program and discount programs from internet service providers, are limited in scope and insufficient to level the playing field for students most in need. Every day, hundreds of thousands of students across the state miss out on meaningfully participating in school. If we allow this to continue for another several months, we risk widening existing educational divides—across race, region, and socioeconomic status.
Recent federal relief will provide crucial support, including substantial funding for K–12 education. Although the state’s current fiscal position is better than anticipated, policymakers still face notable fiscal constraints—not to mention deep uncertainty due to the pandemic. This means confronting difficult decisions and tradeoffs in the coming months.
In considering how best to allocate resources—including federal dollars—state and local policymakers should make expanding broadband internet access a priority. The stakes of California’s digital divide are significant and may have lasting effects. Failing to ensure that all students can participate in distance learning fully and equitably may very well prove to be even costlier for our state over the longer term.