COVID-19 is Widening the Homework Gap. Education Equity Groups See an Opportunity to Close It.

Artwork from the report “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap.”

Spend part of your week learning from home without the early morning scramble to get dressed, out the door, onto the bus or into the car, and through the school doors? A combination of blended online and in-person might sound like a dream to some students and parents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for those who are low-income, the online portion is out of reach, and it threatens to exacerbate an already existing homework gap.

A new study conducted in partnership with Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), the National Urban League, and UnidosUS— shows that nearly 17 million students across the country lack the high-speed internet access they need to adequately connect to the virtual classroom. The report comes with a call to action for Congress to pass the Emergency Education Connections Act, a bill aimed at closing that connectivity gap, and to include in its next coronavirus relief package some $6.8 billion for E-rate, a program of the Federal Communications Commission that provides discounts for telecommunications, internet access, and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries.

Drawing from data collected in the 2018 American Community Survey for households with children age 18 or younger, the study, titled “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap,” shows that 16.9 million of the children in 8.4 million households lack a subscription to any kind of internet access. This is the case for 44.5% of households with an annual income of $25,000, and of those, nearly 29% lack access to a computer, a tool which has proven far more useful than smartphones for online classroom engagement.

While poverty cuts across all ethnic groups, a disproportionate number of low-income families are AmericanIndian/Alaska Native, Black, or Latino and/or rural. About 36% of rural households lack access and 14% of them have no computer. As an ethnic group, Native families see the largest gap in access. An estimated 34% of Native families have no internet access and 16% have no computer. The numbers are only slightly better for Black and Latino families. In both cases, 31% lack internet access and 17% lack a computer. For White families, that number is much lower, with just 21% lacking an at-home connection and only 8% without a computer.

“We cannot continue to overlook the disproportionate impact of this divide, especially as the new school year approaches and with the likelihood that virtual learning will continue in some form,” UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía said in a joint press release for the study. “The success of students who lack essential tools for virtual learning depends on robust federal funding to close the digital divide.”

Her statement was echoed by executive leadership of the partnering organizations, all of whom insisted that the federal government heed their calls for funding and policy change.

“Asking students—many of whom are from low-income or rural homes—to try to learn with a family member’s cell phone or with paper packets is neither acceptable nor sustainable,” notes All4Ed President and CEO Deborah Delisle. “What we offer to our students tells them what it is we value. This is our time to show we care.”

“For far too long, limited broadband access in Native communities has hampered efforts to provide effective culture-based virtual education options for Native students,” says Diana Cournoyer, executive director of NIEA. “It is the duty of the federal government to uphold its treaty and trust responsibilities, including those for equity and sovereignty in education, to Native nations.”

National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said his organization supported these concerns and was pleased to be part of an educational partnership aimed at “ensuring that those in leadership understand the full extent of these racial disparities and invest in students, schools, and communities with the greatest needs.”

Some members of the federal government are already showing their support for this study.

“The statistics are sobering,” notes U.S. Representative Grace Meng (D-NY), who commended the partnering organizations for pulling together and publishing the report in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, and introduced the Emergency Education Connections Act in the House of Representatives.

“As this important report highlights, nearly 17 million students lack the broadband connectivity they need to continue their education online during this crisis, with the children of low-income families, rural areas, and communities of color at a disproportionate risk of being left behind,” affirms U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), who sponsored the Emergency Education Connections Act in the Senate. He said he was committed to asking Congress to allocate at least $4 billion through the E-Rate program in order to avoid an even bigger gap.

The Federal Communications Commission also expressed its support.

“The homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide,” notes FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “This should be a clarion call for policymakers at all levels that bold action is required. It’s time to rise to this challenge because no student should be left offline.”

To learn more about the homework gap, including an interactive map with state-by-state data, visit this all4ed page.



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