The Digital Divide: Remote learning not possible for all families

With remote learning likely this fall, thousands could end up on the wrong side of the digital divide

BOSTON — Before the pandemic, the lack of connectivity was mainly believed to be a problem in rural areas. But COVID-19 exposed how even in major cities, thousands still don’t have access to the internet or computers and laptops. Now, there is growing concern that remote learning could put many students on the wrong side of the digital divide, the gap between those who have access to technology and those who don’t.

25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh examined census and school data and found that in some districts technology may be the biggest barrier to learning this fall. She reveals where kids need the most help with remote learning and what districts are doing about it.

When COVID-19 abruptly shut down schools and businesses in March, Jadine Soo Hoo and her 6-year old daughter, Maliya, found themselves in unchartered territory - Jadine lost her job and Maliya’s education was moved online.

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“I didn’t have a laptop computer for her to learn from and my internet was off of my cellphone,” said the Boston mom. “So when we go over the data, it slows down the speed of the hotspot, internet and that impacts our learning too.”

With no laptop and Jadine’s cellphone providing the only internet access for the home, Maliya was struggling to complete assignments and engage in online learning.

“It was a huge learning curve. It was a new way of schooling that she was not used to,” Jadine told 25 Investigates.

Jadine and Maliya are not alone. According to the latest U.S. Census data, 48,876 school-age children in Massachusetts do not have internet service at home and 14,414 lack a computer.

In some of the state’s urban districts, the digital divide is striking.

In Boston, the state’s largest school district, more than 1,200 families said they lacked internet access, according to the district’s own data. To bridge the gap, the district has so far distributed 32,415 Chromebooks and 2,600 hotspots to its students.

Data provided to 25 Investigates by MassINC, a Boston-based think tank, shows 32% of households with school-age children in Fall River don’t have internet access. The cities of Lawrence and Springfield followed with 31% each. In Holyoke and New Bedford, more than 25% of households are disconnected and 16% of school-age children homes in Boston don’t have access to the internet.

The pandemic has highlighted the major barriers families face when they lack access to computers and internet. A problem the Boston-based non-profit Tech Goes Home is trying to help school districts tackle.

Tech Goes Home is focused on improving digital equality in the Greater Boston area and offers computers and training to individuals who need it. The group has been working around the clock since the pandemic hit here in Massachusetts.

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“Our demand was already off the charts, and it’s just exploded,” said Theodora Hanna, co-CEO of Tech Goes Home. About 85% of Tech Goes Home’s new clients, or “learners,” are people of color and 50% are immigrants, according to Hanna.

“School districts all over the country, certainly all over [Massachusetts], were hit so hard by this and have been scrambling to address it, address a huge problem that we, as a country, should have addressed a long time ago.”

School districts contacted by 25 Investigates said they have made tackling the digital divide a priority. Revere public schools issued 3,591 Chromebooks back in March. But with more than 7,500 students, the district said it could “only provide one [device] per family.” This fall, the district says they’ll provide each student a device and are “working with local internet providers to ensure we can provide internet access to any family who cannot obtain that themselves.”

On the Cape, the Dennis-Yarmouth school district told us it gave all students in grade 3 to 12 and iPad. The district has 3,055 students and not all homes have access to the internet. The superintendent told 25 Investigates they tried to “alert Comcast….but not really sure that worked.”

This spring, Fall River Public Schools issued more than 3,500 Chromebooks to students in K-12. But with 10,246 students, the district didn’t have enough devices to distribute to everyone. Come the new academic year, school officials anticipate 10% of student will not have internet access so they will purchase 1,000 hotspots.

New Bedford – a district of 12,565 students, has distributed 8,100 laptops. But the district says it will offer a device to “100% of students” should remote learning be necessary this fall.

Should Boston Public Schools implement online learning once again, Jadine and Maliya will be in a better place. Tech Goes Home provided them a new laptop, training to operate their new device, and the confidence they will need to continue learning in this new way, which makes access to technology no longer a luxury but a necessity.

“We’re in a new norm now,” said Jadine. “I think remote learning is going to be a huge part of the learning process.”

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