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Kate Zerrenner headshot

How Business Can Help Close the Digital Divide for Students and Families

Teachers, students and families continue to struggle with the fallout from digital inequity, as learners without devices or internet access at home fall increasingly behind on their schoolwork. Public-private partnerships can offer a solution.
By Kate Zerrenner
digital divide education

The 2021-2022 school year is the third affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers, students and families continue to struggle with the fallout from digital inequity, as learners without devices or internet access at home fall increasingly behind on their schoolwork. Fortunately, as the digital divide has widened, so has attention to the issue and with it new solutions to ensure equal opportunity for all students. 

What is the digital divide?

“The digital divide, or the homework gap as it's often called, refers to when students and families don't have access to broadband internet and devices to be able to, in this case, access education and educational opportunities,” said Dr. Mayra Lara, associate director of educator engagement at Education Trust-West, a California educational advocacy group. 

When school went virtual during the pandemic, some kids began to fall behind or further behind. And while many school districts provided some sort of device to students, a device is not worth much if the student doesn’t have equal access to the internet. Students of color and those from low-income families are most likely be in this position: In California, for example, 40 percent of low-income students lack access to wireless internet at home. 

Under normal circumstances, not having a computer or internet access at home makes it more difficult for students to complete their homework assignments properly or do research outside of school. During the pandemic, the gap became even more pronounced, as participating in lessons and connecting with teachers became out of reach for more students. 

From an educator’s standpoint, this issue is not only about the current needs for the classroom, but also what it means for a child’s future. “When folks don't have access to education, then we see that there are decreases in home ownership,” said Lara, a former high-school English teacher. “We see gaps in accumulation of wealth. There aren’t just gaps in learning in the short-term, but there are real financial gaps in the long term. We're not being the nation of equal opportunity that we say we are, and that's really what's at stake here.”

“It’s nearly impossible…” 

In the early months of the pandemic, Sophia Simpson-Verger, a counselor with the Renton School District in Washington, started making home visits to check up on students’ progress. In home after home, she saw students struggling to complete their assignments on a parent’s smartphone or entire families relying on one sluggish hotspot for remote work and school. 

In one April 2020 home visit, “a student's father pulled out his phone to show me what his son was attempting to use during the school day, and it just broke my heart,” she said. “That was the narrative I continued to see as I would show up to people’s homes: kids attempting to use a smartphone to do schoolwork.” 

As students grew increasingly frustrated, Simpson-Verger noticed a significant drop in motivation. The vicious cycle led children to fall further and further behind, even after the district began supplying laptops. “The internet is expensive,” Simpson-Verger said, “and when a lot of families are thinking about the expenses they have each month, they just can't account for the internet.”

Public-private partnerships can help close the digital divide

Many public school systems already have strained resources, but schools with higher proportions of students of color and low-income students fare much worse. According to EdBuild, a school funding research and advocacy group, majority-white schools receive $23 billion more in funding than majority-nonwhite schools, even though the number of students is roughly equivalent. With the glaring inequalities highlighted by the pandemic and home schooling, some companies have increased their investment in ensuring more equitable access.

Initiatives like T-Mobile’s Project 10Million, which is investing $10.7 billion to provide free internet and free mobile hotspots for underserved children in partnership with school districts, can help bridge the gap. "The intent of Project 10Million is to not just chip away at the digital divide that separates those with connectivity from those without. It’s to eliminate it, permanently,” Mike Katz, executive vice president of T-Mobile Business Group, said during an acceptance speech for the Barron’s Celebrates: Educational Inclusion 2021 awards. 

"These connections are transformational,” Katz continued. “They level the playing field for young people in school, and they also make an impact far beyond the classroom. Students and their families can access telehealth and online healthcare resources that were once out of reach. Parents can work remotely or search for jobs. Families can stay in touch with distant relatives.”

All in, T-Mobile has connected over 3 million households since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including families in Renton, Washington. “Being able to partner with T-Mobile to put hotspots in the hands of families is phenomenal,” said Brynn Wilson, a building technology assistant for the Renton School District. "It was the lift we needed to be able to respond to a need our families had right away.” 

Still, Dr. Lara noted that initiatives like these are just the beginning. "Private-public partnerships are so important and vital because oftentimes school systems don't have the resources to be able to meet the needs of all of their diverse learners,” she said. “In the long term, we as a nation also need to be willing to make the investments in infrastructure to ensure students and families have universal and affordable broadband access.”

Image credit: Adobe Stock via T-Mobile

This article series is sponsored by T-Mobile and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner