In early March when the coronavirus pandemic hit places such as the USA and the UK, many states and countries were forced into nationwide lockdown. As a result, schools across the globe were forced to close in order to safeguard children and limit the spread of the virus. This has meant that many pupils have had to participate in remote schooling whereby teachers and schools set home activities and projects via digital means. Education has therefore very much relied on digital formats, from one-to-one zoom calls with teachers, to online tasks or educational videos.
The dependence on digital education has been somewhat necessary, however, it has highlighted a very clear disparity between those who can afford such technologies and those who cannot. Therefore, many children are being deprived of education due to having little to no access to laptops, tablets, or even broadband. As countries like America gear up for a new school year, amidst local lockdowns and varied school closures, these disparities are of prominent concern.
Many reports have highlighted that children from poorer communities or low-income households were not able to access the technology required to suitably participate in remote learning during lockdown. Wider than this, is the issue of broadband – many students who had access to laptops provided by their schools did not have reliable access to Internet connectivity. A Federal Communications commission tally in 2020 found that, approximately 18 million people living in the USA do not have Internet connection with download speeds of 25 Mb per second. Another study from, Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League and UnidosUS, found that 16.9 million children do not have adequate Internet access to support to remote learning.
CNET reported, that even some schools in California which provided its students with chrome books, still found that an estimated 25% did not have adequate access to the Internet. Further, ‘cities like Richmond and San Pablo, which make up the WCCUSD, are nothing like the tech hub of San Francisco, despite being just across the bay. About 90% of the students are Black, indigenous or people of color, or BIPOC (including 54% Latino), and many of the district’s families can’t afford home broadband connections. Students would normally cope by doing their homework in a library or restaurant offering free Wi-Fi.’ As American schools look to start the new semester, it is estimated that 13 out of 15 of the biggest US school districts will be fully utilising remote working via Zoom sessions, Google classrooms and so forth.
The digital divide is a long-standing problem that has just been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. It is disproportionately affecting poorer students, poorer areas, rural districts, and minorities. The Greenlining institute reported that: ‘Latino households are only about one third as likely to have access to home internet as White ones… California’s wealthiest households are 16 times as likely to have access to home internet as the poorest ones.’
This problem, however, it’s not just limited to America. Earlier in the year, UK schools felt the inequality as many children in the UK were not able to properly access remote learning either due to poor access to technology. A recently published report from UNICEF found:
‘At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million children globally – were unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 shuttered their schools, according to a new UNICEF report released today as countries across the world grapple with their ‘back-to-school’ plans. “For at least 463 million children whose schools closed due to COVID-19, there was no such a thing as remote learning,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is a global education emergency. The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come.”’
The report outlined that around 1.5 billion school children faced school closures and the home-based technology needed for remote learning included television, radio and the internet, the curriculum was delivered over these platforms. In some countries libraries and bookstores were also closed and although e-books are available, if you did not have a tablet, smartphone, computer or e-reader; access to new literature was difficult if not impossible. It became very clear that school children from poorer households or communities were the worst affected and unable to access much of the remote education being offered.
Many communities are looking to support local schools and help children who require access to technologies that will enable them to participate in remote learning. Often this means looking to local businesses, governments and the community to donate or help fund access to both digital devices and broadband.