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Will Students without Home Internet Fall Behind During Coronavirus Shutdowns?

Niu Gao March 12, 2020
photo - Student Learning at Home

K–12 schools across California are preparing for closures due to the coronavirus outbreak, to protect students from unnecessary exposure and to sanitize facilities. As schools consider moving classes online to mitigate the disruption to student learning, broadband access at home presents a formidable challenge.

The good news is that K–12 schools have the means to deliver classes online. PPIC research has found that the overwhelming majority (90%) of California schools met the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) minimum threshold for digital learning in 2018, and 59% of schools met the FCC’s long-term targets.

However, internet access is a bigger problem for students in their homes. In 2017, close to 1 million (15.6%) school-aged children (ages 6–17) had no internet connection at home, while over 1.6 million (27.5%) did not have broadband access. About 9.5 percent of households with school-aged children reach the internet only via a cellular data plan, which can be slower and more expensive. For these same households, the devices available are limited as well, with 12.7 percent reporting no laptop, desktop, tablet, or other portable wireless computer at home.

Underrepresented students are most at risk of falling further behind during school closures. About a third of Latino or African American students and students whose parents do not have a college degree lack a broadband subscription at home. Nearly half of low-income households with school-aged children have no broadband at home. Affordability remains a key barrier, as half of low-income households did not subscribe to broadband because of the cost.

In rural areas, access may depend on whether an area offers services. Forty-one percent of rural households with school-aged children do not subscribe to broadband at home, which is much higher than the state average (25%). For households with no internet access, 33.2 percent indicated internet was not available where they lived compared to 1.3 percent of respondents in metropolitan areas.

Households may not have internet or broadband for many reasons, including financial, technological, and topographical barriers.

figure - Vulnerable Students Are Less Likely to Have Broadband Access at Home

As the state and local authorities consider alternatives to in-person instruction, policymakers will need to consider how internet access will affect all students in the days and weeks ahead.

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