This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal November 19, 2020.
By Dr. Kish Cumi Price and Alicia Sells
One of the longest-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the loss of education opportunities for children across our commonwealth. While undertaken for the public health of our communities, school closures and shifts to remote learning have presented numerous, ongoing challenges for students. These range from loss of face-to-face interactions with teachers and peers, to insufficient tools for online instruction, to missing out on meals typically received at school.
We have seen the barriers faced by many families in accessing and using technology become glaringly apparent during the pandemic.
We see it with the growing interest in community learning hubs for both ease of online learning and technology needs, where students can access the internet, use devices, and have supervision while they attend classes and do their homework. We see it with the carloads of families parked in school or library parking lots for their student to access WiFi. We see it as students wait to do school work because multiple siblings must share one device or hotspot.
According to the latest Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book, Kentucky ranks 40th in broadband access nationally, which is measured by access to low-price plans, wired broadband coverage, and friendliness to broadband competition. Even before the pandemic, 30 percent of all students— and 35 percent of student of color—lacked adequate technology at home, putting them at higher risk of falling behind.
What’s more, at the beginning of this school year, nearly two-thirds of parents surveyed reported that their children spent less time on learning activities than prior to the pandemic.
Some students may thrive in a setting where they work from home and engage electronically with teachers, but many students do not have the resources at home to succeed in online school. Some students, like those with an Individualized Education Plan, are especially vulnerable to falling behind without the personalized supports they typically receive in school – making consistent access to technology critical.
Many families with higher incomes have been able to provide a quiet learning space, tutoring assistance, and help with technology to children. Yet, having the necessary tools in place to connect to school, including a device on which to work and high-speed access to the internet to join online classes, is a challenge experienced in both our urban and rural communities.
Parents and caregivers working low-wage jobs, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, are less likely to have the physical space due to crowded housing, money for tutors, or ability to work at home and supervise their child’s learning. This exacerbates existing achievement gaps by race and ethnicity.
For our students who are homeless, which comprise 3 percent of all Kentucky students according to the 2020 County Data Book, finding a quiet space and the technology and internet access necessary for online learning is even more difficult.
Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and caregivers who face language barriers, such as families who are new immigrants, have also faced ongoing difficulties navigating the technology required for online learning to support their children.
With the gaps in infrastructure that impact some of our most vulnerable communities, and the lack of affordability that is driving gaps in access, many students are in jeopardy of falling behind their peers even after in-person classes resume, and achievement gaps based on race and family income may be intensified.
Kentucky can encourage the extension of broadband to rural communities and a proliferation of free Wi-Fi access points in our most vulnerable communities to ensure availability throughout the Commonwealth. Additionally, federal actions can improve access for households that have not been able to afford high-speed internet access. These include allowing cable companies, which often provide high-speed internet, to participate in the Lifeline program that subsidizes internet service for low-income families or shifting funding that supported schools and libraries in getting high-speed internet to serve low-income families.
The digital divide impacts too many families in both our rural and urban communities. For the Commonwealth to create a strong, equitable recovery that reaches all Kentuckians, students need affordable and accessible internet connections to fully engage in learning.
Dr. Kish Cumi Price is the Director of Education Policy & Programming at Louisville Urban League. Alicia Sells is Director of Innovation, Communication, & Marketing at Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative.