COVID-19 Update

New data reveals digital inequality’s effect on lower-income students 

Internet access is up dramatically since 2015, but 18 percent of lower-income families had their service cut at least once during the pandemic due to cost, and 12 percent still have no computer at home at all, according to a report led by Rutgers and other researchers that highlights digital inequity after a year of learning at home.

The report, Learning at Home While Under-Connected, shows that even for families who have internet and a digital device, 56 percent with broadband access say their connection is too slow; 34 percent hit their data limit within the past year; 59 percent say their computer doesn’t work properly or is too slow; and 28 percent had a hard time getting on devices because too many people in the household share them.

The findings arrive just as schools start to double down on fall preparations during this crucial summer transition period. 

The data, published by New America, is authored by Vikki Katz and Victoria Rideout, who conducted similar research in 2015 that was used as a benchmark for pre-pandemic times. They conducted a nationally representative telephone survey of more than 1,000 families from March 10 to April 18, 2021 who report total household incomes below the national median for families with children ages 3-13. 

“Life and learning went online this past year, but not everyone had the devices or connection to keep up,” said coauthor Vikki Katz, an associate professor of Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information. “We still have a long way to go before full digital equity.”

According to the report, 65 percent of families with incomes below the federal poverty line reported their child couldn’t participate in class, was prevented from completing their schoolwork, or had to participate on a smartphone for some period of time during the pandemic because they lacked access to a computer or internet. Majorities of Hispanic (66 percent) and Black (56 percent) parents report their children experienced these obstacles to school participation, compared to 42 percent of white parents. 

“To fully diagnose digital inequality, we must do more than ask yes/no questions about access to internet and digital devices,” said Katz. “Our analyses comparing 2015 and 2021 data show that while access to broadband and computers has increased dramatically – especially among the families that were least likely to have broadband and computers in 2015 – the proportion of families whose internet connections and devices are unreliable or inadequate has hardly changed at all.”

The findings also indicate that parents are more confident in helping their child with schoolwork than before the pandemic and want school leaders to prioritize social and emotional learning in the fall. The authors suggest educators build on parents’ increased comfort in the involvement of their child’s education during the transition to in-person learning. 

“Educators will have an immediate opportunity to treat parents like partners: by showing that they share parents’ priorities for their children at the start of the coming school year,” said Katz. “Despite all of the communication necessary to maintain productive and successful remote learning, parent-teacher relationships still need to be strengthened.”

The report also notes policymakers should redouble their efforts to ensure broadband and device access for lower-income students and families, by building on the gains the pandemic necessitated in many school districts and communities.

The advent of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a federal program to help families and households struggling to afford internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the expansion of E-Rate, a federal program that provides schools and libraries with discounts on their purchase of internet access, are important early steps toward this goal. However, Katz says the Emergency Broadband Benefit is not a complete solution to under-connectedness and will need to be extended after this year.

The full report is available through New America.