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The digital divide: COVID-19 revealed why we must fix it

Easy, affordable internet access: Some people have it, some don’t. The gap between the two groups is called the digital divide, and our recent experience with COVID-19 amplified the effects on disadvantaged households when the world wide web isn’t just a few clicks away.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows 14% of school-aged children lack internet access at home, and 17 percent have no laptop or desktop computer available for online classes. At the onset of the pandemic, Black, Hispanic, or Native American families were even more likely to lack reliable internet service and/or a computer to use with it. Kids in nearly 30% of Black and Hispanic households have no computer access.

When things don’t click

What happens to kids without internet access? They face the risk of falling behind. Three years before COVID hit, one estimate noted that as many as 70% of teachers were assigning homework that required such access for completion. Before COVID, many children were performing internet-based homework at school or in public libraries. Once lockdowns occurred, these options weren’t available.

“Digital and economic divides among school-age children are linked to differences in reading and mathematics proficiency levels across states and between racial and ethnic groups,” noted Linda Jacobsen, a vice president with the Population Reference Bureau think tank. “Proficiency in reading by the end of third grade is an important marker of overall educational development but, beginning in fourth grade, it is also essential for learning other subjects and keeping up academically. Children who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to drop out of high school — reducing their earnings potential and chances for success.”

Sometimes access to the internet is there, but it’s not reliable. One person who participated in focus group research sponsored by North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA) reported, “They (my children) can connect, but it’s hit or miss because we’re on satellite internet, so we might get prioritized, we might not get prioritized. They may get knocked off. They may not get knocked off.”

Or, the internet may not be affordable. Another focus group participant said, “The internet here where I stay is kind of hit-or-miss, and it’s very, very expensive. I pay almost $200 (a month) just for internet alone.”

COVID-19 taught us that schools must be mindful of such issues. As a Rutgers University Communications Professor, Vikki Katz, told USA Today, “It's not enough, especially in a low-income district, to ask, ‘Do you have internet access? Do you have a computer?’”

According to Katz, educators should ask more specific and appropriate questions, such as, “Do you have internet access that's fast enough for the things you need? How many times has that connection been disconnected in the last 12 months?"

“The inability to afford internet service is one of the most common and pervasive barriers to broadband adoption,” notes a North Carolina government website. “According to a 2019 State of Broadband In America report by BroadbandNow, only 39% of North Carolinians have access to 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed at $60 or less per month.”

The site also explains how much price matters. “A 2019 Oklahoma State University study found that only 20% of respondents said they were likely to purchase internet if it were $50 or more per month, while 74% indicated they would purchase it if it were $10 per month.”

How COVID helped

Ahead, North Carolina Governor Gov. Roy Cooper plans to help the state close the digital divide with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion coronavirus recovery package designed to boost the national economy. By 2026, North Carolina will invest nearly $1 billion in: