Digital divide becomes more prominent in education as classes move online

By Grey Stephens
May 10, 2020

Stephanie at work during the pandemic at the Post Office
Stephanie at work during the pandemic at the Post Office

About 70 percent of teachers in America require students to do their homework online. Many students who don’t have computers or lack internet access find it difficult to meet this requirement. These students are part of the digital divide, a problem affecting children’s education across the country.

Recently there has been an increase in students lacking access to the internet due to the latest coronavirus pandemic that has stretched across the United States. Before this virus, students were already struggling with this divide, which is now even greater.

The digital divide was something that also divided students from having ability to achieve academic success because they can’t access their homework like other peers.

In an email interview, John Ferrise, high school English teacher in Upper Darby school district, said how his school provided technology before the spread of the virus through the use of computer carts.

“We provide technology as well as we can as often as we can for students… we have computer carts in every room. If a student is unable to get on the internet, through their phone or work with a partner, we can provide them with laptops, so they can use the internet and complete projects,” said Ferrise. “We also have the library, which is available most days after school if they need to get online to complete a project. So, some classrooms actually share a computer cart. We are fortunate enough in this room to have our own computer cart.”

Now that homework and finishing the rest of the school year online is mandatory, there have been more challenges that both students and teachers face especially now that their access to internet relies on the status of their life at home.

“With online instruction there is only really one way to instruct, and I do not believe this works for everyone. I feel many are struggling to understand lessons via email. They check emails all throughout the day when it works for them. Not all of my emails are answered in a time that works for me, and I feel it sometimes results in students not communicating with me in a timely manner. That can impact their attitude toward taking the online assignment seriously,” said Ferrise.

PewResearch has been doing studies and surveys to address issues regarding having access to internet and how it is essential for many during this time.

A survey conducted early April found that 94% of parents who have students in elementary, middle and high school say their children school is closed and are facing technology limitations with schoolwork. Overall the study found that 1 in 5 parents with children finishing school at home this year say it is very likely or somewhat likely that their child will not be able to complete their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home or have to use public Wi-Fi because they do not have a reliable internet connection at home.

Families with lower incomes are impacted the most.

Stephanie Ortiz, single mother of three in the Upper Darby school district, said she has been directly impacted when it comes to not being able to provide complete access for her sons to complete their homework online.

Stephanie at work during the pandemic at the Post Office

“I have three boys in third, sixth, and ninth grade. I work weekdays and sometimes weekends and my paycheck stretches across so many bills that sometimes internet and cable has to be cut off,” said Ortiz. “A roof over their head and food on the table is definitely first on my list.”

She also only has one laptop at home, which at times is hard to share between her children.

“I let them use my phone to get their work done sometimes, but it is not ideal, especially for my youngest. He has a hard time focusing on a screen that’s small and when he thinks of a phone, he automatically thinks it’s to play games,” said Ortiz.

The already existing digital divide combined with the stay-at-home orders have led to an even greater homework gap. Students who aren’t completing their homework, fall behind and this increases the achievement gap.

Well-funded schools and low-income schools do not have the same opportunity to make the transition to virtual learning equitable for each child.

Some schools have the opportunity to provide laptops for each child and produce hotspots in their neighborhoods, but it all depends on the school’s budget.

For now, schools are depending on the government to enable broadband and digital inclusion.

The New York Times said that every year, the Federal Communications Commission spends about $8 million dollars to provide services to rural and low-income areas.

“If wireless companies would do more to respond the corona virus effects for lower income families, it would help my sons finish out their academic year strong and it would give me relief from one of the many things I have to worry about right now,” said Ortiz.

Schools are now taking steps to make sure students will have access even if they don’t right now.

It is predicted that quarantine due to the result of the coronavirus might extend into the next school year.

“I think students will hit the ground running and adapt quickly if this goes into next year. They have demonstrated that they are resilient and adapt to online instruction. I believe most miss being in school and do not like being cooped up inside all day, but they are going with it. I believe next year will work just as well as this year, with exception to difficulties with access to online instruction for low income families,” said Ferrise.


The Homework Gap due to a lack of internet, puts students behind and creates a wider achievement gap.

Grey Stephens

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