About 16.9 million children under 18 years old don't have high-speed home internet, according to a July 2020 analysis from four groups: the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League and UnidosUS. This digital divide makes it harder for them to stay on top of school work, creating what's called the "homework gap."
The problem was recently highlighted by a viral photo of two young girls sitting outside of a Taco Bell in Salinas, California, using the restaurant's WiFi to do their homework on laptops. Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo tweeted the photo after seeing it on Instagram, according to Parents, writing "2 of our children trying to get WiFi for their classes outside a Taco Bell in East Salinas! We must do better & solve this digital divide once & for all for all California students."
2 of our children trying to get WiFi for their classes outside a Taco Bell in East Salinas! We must do better & sol… https://t.co/U0eF7IuIQ6— Luis Alejo⚖️ (@SupervisorAlejo) 1598423880.0
The mother of the two girls is reportedly an immigrant who was facing eviction, according to Parents. (A woman named Jackie Lopez has since started a GoFundMe to help the girls' mother pay for internet and other expenses.)
The digital divide disproportionately affects students of color, lower-income families and families living in rural areas. One in three Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native households lack high-speed internet access. The FCC also found that the divide is particularly stark in cities like Detroit, where 40% of households are without internet access of any kind and 70% of school-aged children don't have internet access at home.
School districts are trying to address the problem by giving families internet hotspots, tablets and laptops to use at home, but experts say that won't solve the problem in the long term. The federal government "has neglected to treat broadband as a public utility, instead relying on the largely self-regulated internet industry to provide service wherever it wanted, for the price of its choosing," Olga Khazan reported for The Atlantic. "The United States government has historically not seen fast internet as something everyone should have, like it does water or even phone service, and the consequences are becoming frighteningly apparent."
A coronavirus relief package passed by the House in May would have provided $1.5 million for E-rate digital technology for schools and libraries, and $4 billion to help low-income families pay for internet service, Education Week reported. But the bill was rejected outright by the Senate.
In the meantime, local programs like Connected Futures in Detroit are trying to fill the digital gap by offering students a tablet, 6 months of free wifi and technical support. But in other areas, students who don't have internet are only offered paper school work packets instead, which doesn't help students in ESL classes who might not be able to read or interpret the instructions without the help of a teacher, the Atlantic reported.
In the absence of government support or action, many teachers and students are being forced to come up with their own solutions to the ever-growing digital divide. "It feels like a lot of times right now it's my job as a teacher to find a way for [students] to connect to the internet," eighth-grade teacher Rachel Cooper told the Atlantic. "And I don't think that's my job. Policymakers should have made it possible for students to connect."