At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 40% of the state’s PK–12 households lacked “full digital access,” or reliable access to high-speed internet and a connected device, according to Census Bureau data. After a year of efforts to connect students for remote learning, that shortfall decreased to 29% by spring 2021. But full digital access rates remained lower for Black and Latino households,and for those headed by someone without a college degree or with income below $50,000/year. Did government aid to narrow the digital divide help those households most in need?
As part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) committed about $6.8 billion for schools and libraries to narrow the digital divide. ECF funds provided approximately 13 million devices and 8 million broadband connections to about 18 million students nationwide during the pandemic. As of the third and final funding window (for purchases made between July 1, 2022 and December 31, 2023), educational entities in California have requested nearly $1.4 billion in ECF funds, or around 15% of the total funds applied for nationwide so far.
Since its inception in 2021, ECF has narrowed the digital divide for many students. Students were better able to attend remote classes, complete their homework, and use online learning resources. During the first full year of the program, districts submitted 65% of the applications coming from California, with individual schools (mostly charters) comprising an additional 24%, based on data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
How representative are the districts that applied? Altogether, the districts enroll 4.1 million (69%) of the 5.9 million students in California schools and largely reflect the state’s students on key dimensions. Six in ten California students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, compared with 58% in our sample of applicants. And 61% of the state’s students are Black or Latino, compared with 63% in applicant districts. English Learners (ELs) make up 19% of California students and 20% of students in districts that applied for ECF.
Overall, it appears that districts with higher concentrations of students who have historically lacked internet connectivity are applying for ECF assistance in greater numbers. While applicant districts are similar to non-applicant districts on average, when we focus on applicants alone, we see that districts with the highest concentrations of ELs submitted more applications during the first year than did districts with fewer ELs. Similar patterns hold when looking at Black and Latino students and students from low-income households.
ECF funding is unlikely to meet all students’ digital needs. As part of the application, districts were asked to report the number of students with unmet connectivity or device needs, and to describe future plans for serving these needs with ECF funding; the plans aimed to meet between 70% and 74% of the original stated need. When districts reported how many of their students would likely still lack access after ECF measures, the total was between 9% and 16% for the districts with high concentrations of ELs, Black and Latino students, and students from low-income families, and between 9% and 11% for the remaining districts.
Much remains to be done. Although many crucial educational, work, and telehealth tasks now require the internet, 15% of households across California lack reliable internet access and 10% lack a suitable device to meet the needs of today’s increasingly digital world (as of 2021, the most recent data available). Classes have returned to in-person instruction, but digital access at home is still often necessary for students to complete their homework, review course notes, or access resources.
Without the ECF and other assistance to mitigate the digital divide, like the Affordable Connectivity Program, the six-year learning setback students experienced during the pandemic may have been worse. Our future work will examine the connection between ECF digital tool provision and students’ learning recovery.