Dive Brief:

  • According to a new report from Future Ready Schools, produced in partnership with the National Urban League, UnidosUS and the National Indian Education Association, 16.9 million U.S. students (or about 8.4 million households) continue to fall into the homework gap due to a lack of home internet access.
  • Among families lacking home internet access, 36% (1.7 million households) are located in nonmetropolitan “rural” locations, and 4.6 million have incomes of $50,000 or less. By race and ethnicity, a lack of home internet access impacts 34% of American Indian/Alaska Native, 31% of Latino, 31% of Black, 21% of white and 12% of Asian students.
  • In addition, 3.6 million households lack a computer, impacting 7.3 million students. The report calls for Congress to invest $6.8 billion to close both home internet and device gaps.

Dive Insight:

The increasingly digital nature of classroom resources and assignments over the last two decades has fed the phenomena now known as the homework gap, which results from students who lack home internet or device access being unable to complete assignments requiring these tools. The full extent of the issue has been highlighted in recent months by school shutdowns due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

And building closures are expected to keep many students learning remotely full-time or part-time into the new school year, putting more pressure on policymakers and administrators to address these inequities lest many of the nation’s highest-need students fall further behind.

That potential for learning loss has been a driving argument in the Trump administration’s increased pressure for schools to fully reopen, which has included President Donald Trump threatening to withhold funds from schools that fail to do so. Infectious disease experts, however, have cautioned against returning too soon amid a resurgence of the virus in many states, and parents and educators remain wary of COVID-19’s threat to the health and safety of students, families and educators, many of whom fall into high-risk categories.

With many districts announcing plans to at least begin the school year online to varying degrees, this necessitates investment in closing the homework gap as Congress debates the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. And the report from Future Ready Schools offers a good overview of where funds could make the biggest impact.

According to a map in the report, at least 25% of students in 15 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — lack home internet access. In 11 of those states, at least 12% of students lack home computer access.

Notably, these are all states with large rural populations where some households may be so remote that they lack local infrastructure to acquire high-speed broadband service even if they can afford it, or even local cellular towers that would make Wi-Fi hotspots a feasible option. In some states, like Texas, districts have formed consortiums to lay their own fiber networks. Policymakers, however, may also need to consider incentivizing service providers to invest in expanding local infrastructure as well.

In its recommendation that Congress invest $6.8 billion to close the homework gap, the report authors estimate the cost of at $600 per household annually for the 8.4 million households lacking internet access, and a one-time cost of $250-per-household for the 7.3 million families lacking computers.

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