How the ‘homework gap’ leaves students behind during the COVID-19 pandemic

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While the COVID-19 pandemic continues its spread across the country, nearly 90 percent of the nation’s 50.8 million public school students have seen an early end to their school year—or, at least, their school building. As of April 23, 41 states, the District of Columbia, and three territories have ordered or recommended schools close for the remainder of the academic year.

For many of the 55.1 million public and private school students who have seen their education disrupted by the pandemic, school closures have meant trading classrooms for Zoom sessions, and jungle gyms for TikTok dances.

The transition to remote learning poses challenges for parents too. Already navigating the new reality of working from home, navigating unemployment, and/or losing access to their usual child care, they’ve also been forced to assume responsibility for their children’s schooling.

In roughly 85% of households with school-aged children, reliable access to the technology needed to connect during the “new normal” makes this transition more manageable. For students living in one of the approximately three million households with school-aged children without broadband access, however, school closures and the transition to remote learning have made the digital divide more problematic than ever.

What is the homework gap?
Fifteen percent of U.S. households with school-aged children do not have high-speed internet access—the type needed to participate in a Zoom lecture or conduct research for a school report—and fall into what’s often referred to as the “homework gap.” In 2017, 17 percent of teenagers reported that they can’t always finish their homework assignments because of unreliable access to a computer or internet connection.

The homework gap most strongly impacts rural and low-income households. According to the most recent FCC data, an estimated 26 percent of rural Americans do not have an adequate broadband connection, although experts project that the real levels are likely far higher. Students from families making less than $30,000 per year are nearly 30 percentage points more likely to be affected by this disparity than students from households making more than $75,000 per year (35 percent and 6 percent, respectively). Black and Hispanic students also face this gap more acutely than their white peers—particularly those that are also from low-income households.

The homework gap during the “new normal”
As school closures send children away from classrooms, an unreliable internet connection is beginning to impact far more than after-school assignments. Now, the homework gap is compromising students’ access to every aspect of the educational experience. Social distancing guidelines and the closure of libraries, community centers, and non-essential businesses also cut students off from the spaces they could have once used to get online.

The rapid onset of the pandemic left school districts with little time to develop inclusive at-home education options, and educators are still finding creative ways to make sure students are able to keep learning. According to the Center on Reinventing Education’s online database of districts’ coronavirus responses, more than 80 percent of districts report providing technology assistance to families, including the distribution of WiFi hotspots.

Other districts are using low-tech solutions like worksheet packet drop-offs and PBS broadcasts. These options can be more accessible and don’t require an internet connection, but they don’t simulate a classroom environment as well as the remote learning opportunities available to connected students.

A renewed sense of urgency
The Federal Communications Commission has taken some steps to ensure students’ internet access during the pandemic. By temporarily granting additional spectrum authority to internet service providers and getting guarantees from hundreds of internet companies not to terminate service due to an inability to pay during the crisis, the FCC has offered support for houses that already have internet.

The crisis has also brought renewed attention to E-Rate, the largest government program to address the impact of the digital divide on education. The FCC has taken some steps to strengthen E-Rate during the pandemic, such as extending the E-Rate application deadline and temporarily waiving gift rules to allow schools and libraries to accept donations from internet providers during the pandemic. However, the FCC has not yet taken action to address E-Rate’s biggest shortcoming: that it does not offer funds for in-home internet access. As stay-at-home orders cause homes to replace schools as children’s primary educational environment, many advocates—including a group of 16 Democratic senators—are calling for the FCC to further loosen E-Rate rules so that funding can be spent on at-home devices for students without internet access. 

The $2 trillion CARES Act contained the first major step towards strengthening distance learning in response to the ongoing pandemic. The stimulus package offers $13.5 billion for formula-grants to states, 90 percent of which will go to local K-12 educational agencies’ COVID-19 response, including purchasing educational technology for online learning. Additionally, the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) and Broadband program received $25 million to support rural telecommunications access.

However, many advocates say that this emergency funding doesn’t go far enough. As Hill leaders consider provisions for the next stimulus package, there is a push for increased broadband connectivity support.

After the storm
As the light at the end of the tunnel grows nearer in some regions, there is talk of what the world will look like after the pandemic. The “normal” we will return to will be different from before, with the importance of digital connection being less deniable than ever. COVID-19 has brought an added sense of urgency to the digital divide, but the end of the pandemic will not mark the end of this disparity. Eventually, the need for social distancing will recede and schools will reopen, but the homework gap—and the harm it poses for millions of children—will remain.

To learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting education, download our deck on the coronavirus’ impact on education. To learn more about the digital divide impacts education, download our overview on the homework gap.

We’re covering COVID-19’s impact on Washington and the important work Government Affairs teams are doing to adjust and adapt. For complimentary access to stories, slides, and graphics, visit our COVID-19 Policy Resource Center.