The digital divide and the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
The digital divide by definition is the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/digital%20divide). Therefore, there are two categories within digital divides, computers, and internet access. When looking at internet access, there are also two factors, cost, and availability. In my last six years as an administrator in two rural districts, I have personally experienced the challenges of the availability of internet services due to geographic challenges. Simply put, some addresses still have no internet providers available. While this situation is slowly getting resolved by the internet providers, it is out of the control of students and school districts and will not be part of this discussion moving forward.
The economic and educational inequalities between school districts typically revolve around the socioeconomic status (SES) of the students and the resulting poverty level of the school district. You can look at any big city in and you will find a great disparity in the poverty levels between school districts. For example, within York County in Pennsylvania, there is the School District of the City of York which has a 92% poverty rate compared to York Suburban, which shares a border with the School District of the City of York, which has only a 35% poverty rate. Unfortunately, many city school districts suffer from high poverty. This then typically results in lower house values and a lower tax base. For Pennsylvania, which districts rely heavily on school taxes to fund their budget, this creates a financial divide between the high and low poverty districts. This financial divide directly impacts the digital divide. Less money means less technology. In some cases, high poverty districts, to get computers in the hands of all of its learners, choose the most cost-effective solution, a Chromebook. While the Chromebook has many advantages, its main disadvantage is that it relies on an internet connection for full functionality. Without the internet, which occurs more often for students living in poverty due to cost, their technology is inferior, thus widening the digital divide.
So, with districts transitioning to online learning in the second half of the 19-20 school year due to the pandemic, what will the start of the 20-21 school year look like? Without a vaccine, schools will have to adjust to meet safety requirements. One option would be to continue with the strictly online approach. However, if this is the case, are we inadvertently widening the digital divide? I have read that high poverty and rural districts, to meet the needs of their learners who didn’t have the technology or internet access, went “old school” and sent home packets of work. While commendable, having this same approach in 20-21 is not tolerable as it is an unfair practice because it widens the digital divide. Until all students have an internet connection and suitable technology, thus ending the digital divide, 100% online learning can not be an option. So, what can be done?
In an earlier blog, I suggested an AM/PM schedule for all students. While I know that idea has potential obstacles, what I wanted to emphasize was that whatever schedule is developed, it will need to maximize the amount of learning time students spend face-to-face with their teachers. While technology is a wonderful tool, it is just that, a tool. It will never take the place of the teacher. We need to focus on the maximum amount face-to-face time between our teachers and students as we look to develop a safe school schedule, that does not widen the digital divide, to start the 20-21 school year.