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Report: Over 2.5 Million California Students and Teachers Lack Adequate Internet Connection or Devices

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(Image credit: iStock/KeremYucel)

When school districts nationwide scramble to implement remote learning in March, few understood the long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, as July approaches, it's become clear that the vast majority of U.S schools will not return to a "normal" fall semester. With districts planning various forms of blended learning for Fall 2020, home access to broadband internet and computing devices will continue to be critical for students and teachers. Yet millions are without these essential learning tools. 

A new analysis released today finds that California ranks second in the nation for highest population of students and teachers lacking adequate internet connection and devices at home. In California, 1,528,536 students lack adequate high-speed connection (25%) and 1,063,415 lack devices (17%); and 8% (20,758) of k-12 teachers in California lack high-speed internet connection while 2% (5,485) lack devices. These estimates are higher than previously reported.

The report from Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group, Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning, fixes a one-year price tag of at least $6 billion and as much as $11 billion to connect all kids at home nationwide, and an additional $1 billion to close the divide for teachers throughout the country, and the report urges Congress to close this gap as part of its next emergency stimulus bill in response to the pandemic.

“The covid-19 pandemic has exposed the digital divide for what it is: a nationwide crisis that leaves millions of children and hundreds of thousands of teachers without proper connectivity and tools to conduct distance learning at a time when school increasingly has come to depend on it,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “States like California and others are working hard to address this problem, but our new data and analysis -- which reveals a distance learning digital divide that is even worse in California then was previously reported -- further highlights the urgency for policymakers, educators, and private companies to do more to address this basic educational equity issue that affects kids, not just in this state, but in every state.”

The new report contains detailed state-by-state data and finds that the states with the largest K-12 digital divide are largely in the south, with Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama showing the largest deficit by proportion, and Texas, California, and Florida the largest gaps by population. But, the report also notes, every state has a problem: “Even among states with the smallest divides, approximately from one in four to one in five students do not have an adequate internet connection.”

And the report highlights personal stories from teachers from across the country, including teachers from Oakland and Redwood City:

  • “Over 30% of our families currently do not have Internet at home, 35% of students are accessing online content via parents’ smartphones. That creates a whole other set of challenges: parents needing the phone for their own communication needs, parents being at work and students unable to access online work, limited data plans creating worries about paying bills or losing connectivity.”  -- Jessica, elementary school teacher, Oakland, California  
  • "I am a teacher and do not have reliable access to the internet. I cannot afford internet. I am using my personal hotspot to teach which is unreliable and slow. There is not a program to support teachers who need internet access.” -- Miki, high school teacher, Redwood City, California

Lack of access to the internet and a distance learning device during the COVID-19 pandemic school closures puts these students at risk of significant learning loss. The report therefore outlines the baseline technical requirements for distance learning (reliable high-speed internet, sufficient data plans, and a computer, laptop, or tablet device), and concludes the cost of closing the digital divide for students to be between $6 billion and $11 billion in the first 12 months, plus an additional $1 billion to close the divide for teachers. The report also highlights that digital literacy training for families unfamiliar with digital technology is another key requirement for successful distance learning.

Summary of the Key Findings:

  • Approximately 15-16 million K-12 public school students, or 30% of all public K-12 students, live in households either without an internet connection or device adequate for distance learning at home, a higher number than previously recorded; and of these students, approximately 9 million live in households with neither an adequate connection nor an adequate device for distance learning.
  • The homework gap isn’t just about homework anymore; lack of access to the internet and a distance learning device during the COVID-19 pandemic school closures puts these students at risk of significant learning loss.
  • This analysis identifies students lacking baseline technology requirements for distance learning, including reliable high-speed internet, sufficient data plans, and a computer, laptop or tablet device.
  • This digital divide is a major problem for students in all 50 states and all types of communities but is most pronounced in rural communities and households with Black, Latinx, and Native American students.
  • 300,000 to 400,000 K-12 teachers live in households without adequate internet connectivity, roughly 10 percent of all public school teachers, and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices.
  • The cost of closing the digital divide for students is at least $6 billion and as much as $11 billion in the first 12 months, and it would cost an additional $1 billion to close the divide for teachers.
  • The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the nature of the Homework Gap, exacerbated existing inequities in education, and  heightened the urgent need for Congress and the states to provide emergency funding to ensure all students have equal access to distance learning.
  • The private sector, districts, and education support organizations also have important roles to play in this challenge to identify the right technology that meets the unique needs of their students and teachers today while fitting their long-term digital aspirations, and that are delivered systematically and equitably to districts across the U.S.

Methodology: 

The digitally divided analysis combines the nationally representative 2018 1-year survey data and micro-data from the American Community Survey with 2018-2019 school year data from the National Center for Education Statistics to identify the number of K-12 students and teachers in households that lack adequate internet (e.g., high-speed) and/or a distance learning device (e.g., laptop, tablet). Based on data collected from desk research and stakeholder interviews, this report estimates a cost range to provide adequate distance learning technology for all students and teachers that are considered digitally divided, ranging from meeting minimum versus more robust distance learning technology needs, and based on a range of technology combinations.