Access to online learning amid coronavirus is far from universal, and children who are poor suffer from a digital divide

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, parents, school districts, and communities are doing their best to replace in-person with online learning. But as a recent Washington Post article notes, the move to e-learning prompted by school closures has “exposed the technology divides”—with K–12 students who lack the resources they now need to learn at home facing long-term academic disadvantages.

Although the Post article focused on the digital divide in the District of Columbia, this is a national problem.

EPI analysis of data from the most comprehensive study of primary and secondary education in the country illustrates a widespread digital divide based on family income. The data, from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for eighth-graders, show that full access to online learning is far from universal and that students who are poor are less likely to have access to the key tools and experiences they need to attend school online. For example, nearly 16% of eighth-graders overall, and almost a quarter of eighth-graders who are poor, don’t have a desktop or laptop computer at home on which to follow their classes. About 8% of eighth-graders who are not poor lack access to these essential devices. The data also show that low shares of students have teachers with full technological proficiency to teach online. (Poor students are defined as students who are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.)

Not all students are set up for online learning and students who are poor have less access to key tools: Share of eighth-graders with access to tool for online learning, by income level, 2017

All students 95.8%
Non-poor 98.4%
Poor 93.0%
All students 84.4%
Non-poor 92.3%
Poor 76.3%
All students 76.3%
Non-poor 81.8%
Poor 70.6%
All students 51.3%
Non-poor 56.1%
Poor 46.4%
All students 43.4%
Non-poor 45.0%
Poor 41.7%
All students 69.2%
Non-poor 71.4%
Poor 66.8%
All students 32.5%
Non-poor 32.5%
Poor 32.6%
All students 19.3%
Non-poor 18.3%
Poor 20.3%
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Notes: Poor students are students eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch programs. Non-poor students are students who are ineligible for those programs. Frequent use of internet at home for homework means every day or almost every day. Students’ teachers were either “already proficient” in, “have not” received training in, or “had received training” in “software applications” and “integrating computers into instruction” in the last two years.

Source: 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), eighth-grade reading sample microdata from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics

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As the figure shows, about one in four eighth-graders who are poor do not have a desktop computer or laptop (23.7%), and almost one in three (29.4%) do not have a tablet—which are essential if students are to be able to follow instruction online. Indeed, 7.0% of eighth-graders who are poor do not have home internet, the other essential instrument for remote study. In contrast, only 7.7% of non-poor students lack a desktop or laptop computer, and only a tiny fraction of non-poor students (1.6%) are without internet access. (It’s important to note that the survey questions do not ask about the quality or coverage of the internet access, or the number of computers in the house. Devices once available for homework may now be shared with siblings or be used by parents for work.) In sum, for eighth-graders overall, the data show broad but uneven access to the internet, and also demonstrate that a sizeable minority, 15.6%, don’t have the essential hardware they need to learn online.

Another challenge that the data spotlight is that eighth-graders are not as accustomed to using the internet for homework at home as one might expect. Roughly half report they do not frequently use the internet at home to do their homework. This lack of habit could be a real obstacle as schools ramp up online instruction because it means that students (and parents) are ill-prepared to deal with the glitches and more substantive problems that will likely arise. In addition, the share of students who are poor who report experience using the home internet frequently for homework is roughly 10 percentage points lower than the share among their non-poor counterparts (46.4% versus 56.1%).

Just about a third of eighth-graders overall have teachers who consider themselves proficient in using software applications, and only a fifth have teachers who consider themselves proficient in integrating computers into instruction. The shares of students with teachers who don’t consider themselves proficient but have received some training in applications and computer use in instruction are higher. Yet that still leaves nearly a quarter (24.1%) of eighth-graders with teachers who are neither proficient in nor trained in software applications, and close to one in eight (11.5%) with teachers who are neither proficient in nor trained in how to integrate computers into instruction.

Teachers, parents, districts, and communities are doing their best, under extremely difficult circumstances, to expand access to devices and revamp operations so that children lose as little as possible in terms of not just valuable learning time, but also school-based supports like meals, health clinics, and counseling. The hardships they are facing are widespread, and educators and administrators are trying to mitigate the pain during this crisis.

As we adjust, policymakers should be wary of the assumption that all children, or even most children, are learning online in a meaningful way because it is not a reality. And the lack of remote learning for many due to the digital divide is just a small tip of the iceberg of factors impeding a sound education for all of our students during this time. Once school buildings reopen, we must make large and targeted investments in strategies to address the consequences of the current challenges and lift up all students going forward.