When schools across the nation, including New Jersey, suddenly closed in March due to the pandemic and shifted to remote, technology-based learning, in varying degrees, all districts began confronting the challenge of technological inequities among their students. There is a digital divide—inequality between those who have computers and online access and those who do not—in every community.

The challenges include having home computers, having home internet access, and sharing one computer among a parent, who is working from home, and one or more children who are using the computer to do schoolwork at home.

A March 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, sheds additional light on the disparities that have had an impact on students before the shutting of school doors and give us a glimpse into the status of remote learning.

What is the status of technology in households? Below are some of the key findings of the Pew report. More information on the report is available here.

Finding: Use of the Internet for Homework

  • The majority of U.S. eighth-graders (58%) rely on the internet to complete their homework, while 6% report they never use the internet at home to do this.
  • It is incorrect to assume that urban students are the least likely to use the net; in fact, 58% of students who live in cities do so.
  • Suburban students report 65% internet use for homework “every day or nearly every day” while 50% of students in rural areas and 44% of those who live in towns use the net for homework.
  • Pew also reports disparities based on the education level of parents: 62% of students whose parent(s) are college graduates use the internet for homework. The levels of internet use for homework declines for students whose parents have fewer years of education: 53% of students whose parents have some post-high school education; 52% with parents having a high school education; and 48% of those whose parents did not graduate from high school.

Finding: The Lack of Connectivity is More Pronounced in Certain Households

  • 15% of US households with school age children do not have high speed internet connectivity.
  • 35% of households with children 6-17 with incomes less than $30,000 do not have high speed connectivity versus 6% of households with incomes greater than $75K.
  • Broadband gaps are especially evident among lower-income black and Hispanic households with school age children.

Finding: Some Lower-Income Teens Lack the Resources to Complete Work at Home

  • Overall, 17% of students ages 13-17 report they are often unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have access to a computer or the internet.
    • 25% of black teens, 13% of white teens and 17% of Hispanic teens report this challenge.
  • 12% of teens report using public wi-fi for access to complete assignments.
    • 21% of black teens, 11% of white teens, and 9% of Hispanic teens
    • 21% with family income under $30,000
    • 11% with family incomes of $30,000-$74,999
    • 7% with family incomes of at least $75,000

Finding:  A Quarter of Lower-Income Teens Do Not Have Access to a Home Computer

  • 25% of teens with household incomes below $30, 000 do not have access to a home computer
  • 4% of teens in households with incomes above $75,000 have no access to a home computer
  • 18% of Hispanics, 11% of blacks and 9% of whites report they do not have access to a home computer

Now What?  Sharing the PEW data is meant to inform and assist us as we ensure our schools are equitable. Just as rural students and students living in smaller towns have challenges with access to technology, so do students who live in cities and suburbia. The data should not be used to criticize decisions made in pre-pandemic times, nor should it ignore the funding challenges in every district. It should contribute to community discussions regarding 21st century learning, preparing students for the world they will enter, and meeting the technology needs of all students, regardless of any factors.

Public health officials are warning us about the potential of “viral hot spots” during the 2020-2021 flu season which may lead to school and business closings. While it is not a realistic expectation for districts to solve the long existing challenges of the digital divide overnight, it is reasonable for every district to assess its remote learning capabilities and develop a strategic action plan to meet the needs of its students.

NJSBA’s Equity Council consists of board of education members, superintendents, district administrators, and representatives from the New Jersey Department of Education, higher education, and advocacy groups.

The purpose of the Equity Council is to provide NJSBA leadership, members and staff with information about issues and field experiences related to equity in education in New Jersey school districts, as well as a national perspective on this issue. The Equity Council regularly provides information on best practices and helpful resources to New Jersey school districts.