The Pandemic Is Forcing Everyone to Face the Digital Divide

As the number of Covid-19 cases in the US continues to rise, many parents in the country are getting ready for a fall semester based entirely on remote learning. Attempting to teach and learn from home has put a tremendous strain on all parents, teachers, and students, but for families without access to high-speed broadband or the (proper number of) devices for kids to work off of, the upcoming school year poses the possibility that those children will fall even farther behind. On Tuesday, WIRED editor in chief Nicholas Thompson sat down with reporters Adrienne So and Pia Ceres to discuss the how the digital divide may worsen inequality in the socially distanced school year ahead.

When the coronavirus outbreak first began shutting down schools in March, all parents were left scrambling—some to homeschool as they attempted to work from home themselves, and others to find care for their children as they went to essential jobs. It wasn’t an easy situation for anyone, but higher-income families were better positioned to navigate the precarious situation, whether through the help of private tutors, homeschooling pods, access to better equipment, or some combination of those things. Now, as parents and educators launch into the second leg of this national experiment, little has changed as far as resource allocation is concerned. And while many school districts are doing all that they can to provide students with internet access and a stable environment to learn in, a lack of federal resources has made it difficult to guarantee these things. As Ceres notes during the conversation (video above), education experts worry that vast differences in educational experiences during this time will widen the gulf between students from high- and low-income families in the US.

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But many schools have learned much from the spring shutdowns, using technology to mitigate some of the issues that have surfaced. Now, armed with experience, they are getting creative. In Seattle, as Thompson points out, school buses have been repurposed as moveable wifi hotspots. The private sector is chipping in as well, with initiatives like the one from Microsoft and Land O’Lakes, which are partnering to improve connectivity in rural areas. And with time, some children, like those who learn differently, are even seeing benefits from this more flexible method of schooling. “For those students, it’s actually been a little bit of a relief for people to come up with creative solutions to serve different student needs,” So says. Teachers, too, are growing more comfortable with the new set-up and working together to navigate the new technological tools available to them.

The pandemic didn’t create the digital divide, but it has certainly exacerbated it. And though the current schooling predicament has its challenges, it has also forced difficult—and long overdue—conversations around addressing educational inequality.

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