'School at home' shows internet access concerns

The Brillion News

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred Wisconsin schools to undertake an unprecedented exercise in virtual and distance learning, districts throughout the state are grappling with how to provide devices and internet access to students without them.

Data interpreted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF) shows these children are in both cities and rural areas, with low-income and students of color disproportionally represented.

The COVID-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate the “digital divide” between students who have fast, reliable at-home internet access and those who do not.

This divide has long been significant, but recent events underscore its importance – it now can determine which students have a seat in their new virtual classroom and which are left to fend for themselves.

According to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 370,000 Wisconsinites – 6.6 percent of the state population – did not have an internet subscription in their homes. This included more than 82,000 Wisconsinites under the age of 18.

Students without reliable internet access risk falling behind in classes that have moved online, potentially widening existing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, the WPF said.

While most Wisconsin households have reliable access, home access for all students is far from assured. About one-third of all school districts report that at least a quarter of their students do not “have enough internet access at home to complete homework assignments and other school related activities,” according to survey data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

In a report issued on May 13, the WPFseeks to broaden understanding of the number and characteristics of students in Wisconsin who lack reliable home internet access. Then it looked at strategies implemented both in Wisconsin and elsewhere to help those students.

One factor not reflected in the data cited is how the COVID-19 pandemic may change internet access status in some households, particularly where job losses or other economic hardships occur.

The WPF report said data collected by DPI’s Digital Learning Survey sheds light on students’ access to online learning in districts before COVID-19. In recent weeks, districts made urgent efforts to expand access. However, increased demand for internet and device usage — when entire families may be working and learning from home — could place additional burdens on bandwidth, further reducing access for students.

Additionally, economic fallout from the pandemic may mean more families struggling to afford internet access or even housing.

One note of caution in interpreting the data: school districts’ response to the survey may in some cases come from estimates rather than concrete data. Also, in responding, the districts decided what constituted adequate internet access.

DPI survey results collected in 2019 show a difference in internet access depending on district size, with larger districts reporting greater access. Among districts with fewer than 500 students, 47 percent said more than three-quarters of their students had enough internet access at home to complete homework assignments. Among districts with more than 2,000 students, 80 percent reported meeting that threshold.

Most concerning, nearly 10 percent of districts overall said fewer than half of their students have adequate internet access.

When asked about the reasons for their students’ lack of internet access, 45.5 percent of all districts cited cost as the reason at least half of their students who were without internet lacked access.

Many rural municipalities have significant shares of residents under age 18 who lack access, but the problem extends to some cities and outer suburbs as well.

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