The coronavirus pandemic changed the digital divide from a problem into an emergency. 

Broadband access is not merely about binge watching shows on Netflix and online shopping. It’s the gateway to opportunity. Completing homework, finding a job, working from home, making appointments, starting a business, and accessing government services all require internet access. Yet, communities of color lack this critical service and ultimately end up on the wrong side of the digital divide  ̶  a term used to describe the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. 

Here’s why. 

There are three things needed: a working computer, broadband access and the technical skills needed to use the digital devices. People of color and vulnerable communities may only have cellphones, which is not adequate for hours of virtual classroom instruction.

Passing credit checks are required for access to home internet service, and it is a roadblock for some. Or simply having a stay-at-home parent to help supervise and motive school-aged children is another factor in the disproportionate numbers.

Lack of Internet Access is a Barrier to Academic Success

It’s back-to-school and an estimated 16.9 million U.S. children remain logged out, with African American students being hit the hardest. Shelter-in-place orders amid a novel pandemic have also resulted in libraries and casual dine-in restaurants to close, where those who are internet starved relied on for public Wi-Fi.

Madison Metropolitan School District was forced to tackle the digital divide problem, becoming experts in complex broadband options seemingly overnight. That happened on top of grappling with how to make sure their low-income students are fed.

The district canceled in-person classes due to surging COVID-19 cases across Wisconsin and the nation. While a necessary public health measure to move classes online, the stakes for students on the other side of the digital divide got even higher.

“It’s important that we recognize that every student deserves a full and equitable education,” said Dr. Carlton Jenkins, MMSD’s incoming superintendent. He also said the weeks prior to the start of the new school year have shown the essential role public schools play in the community, while shining a light on existing disparities.

How to Make Sure All Students Can Attend Virtual Classes

MMSD identified 1,900 households unable to engage in distance learning because of the urgent need for access to reliable internet and Wi-Fi services. In an effort to assist families lacking access to connectivity, the district has delivered 9,000 Google Chromebooks to students’ homes and arranged to have school buses deliver broadband internet access in areas with limited or no high-speed internet access.

“The reasons are multifaceted,” said Winnie Karanja, founder and executive director of Maydm, a Madison nonprofit that teaches computer skills to girls and students of color. 

Karanja also pointed out how the pandemic has not only revealed, but exacerbated inequities that hold marginalized students back. The abrupt switch to remote learning wiped out academic gains for many students.  Adding to the damage to their learning, a mental health crisis is emerging as many students have lost access to services that were offered by schools.

“We have seen the pandemic disproportionally effect students of color who are dealing with social and emotional issues like whether they will be evicted from their homes … and all the uncertainty their families may face,” she said.

Achievement Gap Will Likely Widen

Some studies project the coronavirus will undo months of academic gains, leaving many students behind, especially Black children. Catching up won’t be easy. High school dropout rates could increase, and younger children could miss out on foundational concepts in phonics and fractions that prepare them for a lifetime of learning and working, the New York Times reports.

“When you think about how COVID-19 will affect the achievement gap, it’s going to be very serious,” Karanja said. “It’s something that will need to be addressed, especially around math and English because they are key indicators around student achievement.”

Dr. Fallon Wilson, chair of Tennessee Historical Black College University Success Board and co-founder of Black in Tech Nashville, agrees.

“We need an unprecedented movement to bring all people of color fully into the digital world in the 21st century, just as our parents and grandparents fought to secure their voting rights,” Wilson told The Tennessean.

Disruptions caused by the corona virus have left students, faculty, administrators and parents immensely uprooted. Key strategies to prevent learning loss may include addressing individual student skills; addressing students’ social and emotional well-being; being actively transparent when communicating with families and the community; and, building a network of support.