Closing the Digital Divide More Imperative than Ever

by James A. Bacon

As K-12 schools, community colleges and universities shift ever more learning online, the so-called “digital divide” — disparate access to high-speed Internet access and computers — is looming as a bigger problem than ever before.

A new analysis by the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) finds that more than 200,000 K-12 students (14%) and more than 60,000 college students (10%) lack broadband subscriptions in the home. The survey also found that 173,000 K-12 students (12%) and nearly 23,000 college students (4%) lack a laptop or desktop computer.

The lack of access to broadband is most acute in rural areas, where broadband infrastructure is spottiest, but is widespread in Virginia’s urban areas as well. Half of all students without devices live in urban areas.

“The research looked at whether students actually had broadband service in the home,” said Tom Allison, SCHEV’s senior associate for finance and innovation policy and author of the report, “rather than if it was available in their area. That is important because a household might have a dozen companies to choose from, but won’t benefit if they can’t afford it.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know about what college will look like in the fall, but one thing we do know is that much more of it will be conducted and experienced online,” Allison added.

I was chatting a day or two ago with a board member of the Virginia Community College System, who told me that, due to a lack of access at home, students in non-metropolitan areas are packing community-college parking lots to avail themselves of the college hotspots. At least they are adapting. Most K-12 students aren’t old enough to drive, even if they have cars, and they don’t have that option.

Governor Ralph Northam has made investment in rural broadband a priority, but I cannot find any new references to the administration taking any additional measures to address the digital divide in the context of schools adapting to the COVID-19 epidemic. That job has fallen to the school districts themselves. From what I can tell, the Roanoke Times has done the best job among Virginia’s newspapers of covering that particular issue.

Providing broadband infrastructure is not a traditional responsibility of schools,  but broadband has moved to the top of the list of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, a group of nearly 80 of the state’s 132 division. There isn’t a short-term solution within the means of school districts to bridge the gap entirely. However, many local school districts in western Virginia are giving it their best try.

  • City of Bristol Public Schools has acquired hot spots for students and worked with local Internet providers to provide high-speed access to 100 students who have been identified as being in need.
  • Louisa County Public schools, which estimates that half its students lack reliable Internet access, have deployed 22 Wireless on Wheels units throughout the county.
  • Cumberland County Public Schools is equipping buses with hot spots from the public library and taking them throughout the county. Hot spots are being placed in churches and community locations.
  • Halifax County is putting hot spots in every school building and equipping every student with a Chromebook so they can download materials at school without connecting at home.
  • Middlesex County schools are creating Wireless on Wheels units with funding from Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe Solar, which provides solar energy to the county’s schools.
  • Brunswick County schools are using a portion of its federal CARES Act relief funds to create hot spots.

Bacon’s bottom line: The digital-divide issue is entirely foreseeable. Many school districts with modest resources have acted proactively to deal with it. It may not be possible to guarantee that every K-12 student has access to laptops and broadband, but between CARES Act funding, local philanthropic support, and a district’s own resources, there is no excuse for failing to close at least part of the gap.

If school districts close their schools and shift to online learning, the responsibility falls on them to address the digital divide. Woe be unto any school administration that settles for blaming others for their problems.