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What Progress Has Been Made in Closing the K-12 Digital Divide?

Experts say communities across the U.S. have made significant progress in efforts to expand Internet access, largely through private-public partnerships and localized initiatives to make broadband affordable to families.

A word cloud featuring the words "digital divide" and related terms.
According to a report in February from the policy research firm Public Policy Associates, 2.1 million more children had broadband access in 2021 than 2019, following efforts at the local, state and federal levels to narrow the digital divide for online education during COVID-19 school closures. While there’s still progress to be made to connect underserved communities across the U.S., policy experts say it’s important to build upon the success of public-private partnerships and programs that have worked to expand K-12 Internet access.

Hal Woods, chief of policy for the parent advocacy group Kids First Chicago, said Chicago has made notable strides in expanding connectivity for families with school-aged children since the pandemic first necessitated the move to online learning in 2020. He said in 2020, Kids First Chicago partnered with city leaders, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), philanthropic groups like United Way of Metro Chicago and community-based organizations to launch Chicago Connected, a $50 million public-private partnership initiative to provide free broadband access to pre-K-12 students’ families which helped to connect over 60,000 households totaling over 100,000 students who previously did not have reliable Internet access. He said he believes partnerships between school and government officials and community organizations helped make the program a success, adding that the program helped to connect roughly a third of all CPS students.

“We had parents [in 2020] that essentially said, ‘My kid cannot participate in remote learning. We don’t have Internet at home. Libraries are closed. There’s no way to get kids online to learn,’ and so we did an initial report that essentially looked at the [digital divide] at the time to identify that about one out of five kids in the city of Chicago did not have Internet access at home,” he said. “What we see in the data now is that there’s been a tremendous impact … Twenty percent of kids in Chicago did not have Internet access before March 2020. Now, about 93 percent of kids do, and that took money, it took effort, it took working with community organizations to help get people signed up.”

Woods said one of the biggest challenges to closing the digital divide is often the affordability of Internet access, adding that sometimes the issue isn’t whether students have access to Internet service providers but whether their offerings are affordable to families. He said with the support of billions in COVID-19 relief funds, legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and through programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program, communities now have more at their disposal than ever before to help tackle challenges like these and connect families to affordable options needed for digital learning.

“With the Infrastructure Act, what you saw was a recognition that Internet access is no longer really a luxury, and that it is kind of a utility in the same way that gas or electricity is,” he said. “States are getting billions of dollars from the federal government to do infrastructure building around the country, but then there’s also this question of affordability and adoption, and I think that’s an issue that you probably see in lower-income communities, urban but also rural as well, where you just see the barrier of cost is causing people not to actually enroll and sign up for Internet access.”

Woods added that the Affordable Connectivity Program, in particular, has made a nationwide impact in expanding access to affordable Internet options.

“Having the government program being able to put $30 a month into eligible families’ pockets to be able to be connected has had a huge impact on children’s education but also certainly families’ ability to just kind of navigate 21st-century life as well,” he said.

Aside from federal resource availability, he said, communities across the U.S. have been able to launch their own successful digital equity initiatives similar to Chicago Connected by utilizing partnerships between philanthropists, community organizations, government and schools.

“There was Miami Connected, there was [Philadelphia’s PHLConnectED], which [involved] school districts partnering with Internet service providers and the philanthropic community and creating programs where families could find affordable Internet options,” he said, adding that digital literacy resources played a crucial role in programs like these.

Kevin Taglang, executive editor at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, said his organization had been working since the beginning of the pandemic to outline what a national plan to close the digital divide would look like, much of which ended up in the federal Infrastructure Act. However, he said, the divide remains in some underserved communities across the U.S.

“For students [without reliable Internet], they’re back to what school was like before the pandemic for them, that they are back in school and learning in school but maybe don’t have the tools to be able to do assignments like other kids do at home that demand a computer and demand you’re connected to the Internet to access resources either from the school or the greater World Wide Web,” he said. “We have to make sure broadband networks reach everybody where they live. That’s certainly a huge problem for sure in many rural areas, but it can be a problem in urban areas as well. The service that’s provided needs to be affordable.”

Like Woods, Taglang said it’s encouraging to know that policymakers on the federal level have started to see the need to get involved in efforts to close the digital divide, noting that the Emergency Connectivity Fund helped push much-needed resources to school districts still grappling with the need to connect more families for online learning.

He also made note of work in Chattanooga, Tenn., where initiatives like HCS EdConnect and Tech Goes Home have helped to provide free Internet access, Chromebooks, tablets and training on digital skills to low-income families and community members, as a model for a comprehensive community approach to closing the digital divide. He added that nonprofits like the Pew Charitable Trusts have also worked successfully with states to help expand broadband access.

Taglang said a defining feature of programs that have had success is encouraging community planning geared toward connecting underserved families from low-income rural and urban communities most in need of Internet access.

“I think that, if it’s not 100 percent of homes and businesses that get access to broadband, we’re going to come pretty close,” he said. “If we get to the point where we can start assuming everybody has access to Internet at home, it’s amazing to think about what the possibilities are for more personalized learning, never having a snow day for kids again, everybody being able to do telehealth visits … A lot of these things are why the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society likes to think about what the possibilities are, and it really is an exciting time if we keep our focus and [take advantage of] legislation from Congress.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.