After a seismic shift in our daily lives and the passing of over 600,000 Americans, we are hopefully approaching a return to normalcy from COVID-19. While acknowledging this significant death toll and noting the disproportionate impact on the economically and socially marginalized, a collaborative discussion piqued our interest on another pressing concern: equitable access to educational opportunities amongst Alabama youth as schools shifted to online instruction.
This shift is potentially problematic because of the digital divide, which broadly refers to unequal access to both internet and internet-enabled devices across demographic groups. Put more clearly, unequal access to the tools necessary to support online learning presents a clear problem for households financially unable to support a student learning in a virtual format.
Examining 27 weeks of data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, limited to Alabama households with children who shifted to online learning during the pandemic, we found notable differences in access to both computers and internet. Specifically, data indicate lower income families are less likely to always or usually have access to a computer or digital device for educational purposes, as well as internet access, than are those from higher income households. For example, whereas 99% of families from the highest income households had regular access to computers, only around 81% of those in the lowest income households did. Although we did find racial disparities in computer and internet access, the 3 percentage point advantage for white households was not nearly as large as the disparity across household income.
Altogether, these data provide further evidence for the influence of the digital divide in Alabama. The shift to online education impacted all, but with a potentially greater negative impact on students from low income families. While recognizing the benefits of our public education system, it is also important to recognize research indicating the education system appears to benefit some more than others. Providing support for this claim, in fact, scholars have noted that the strongest predictor of graduating from college is parental income.
A commonly held perspective of education, as with many other pursuits, is that your return is generally reflective of what you put in. We do recognize the importance of individual efforts; however, it is important to acknowledge that students and their families (as well as school systems) vary in the economic resources they can reasonably contribute to education, and more affluent families are simply able to contribute more. Reflective of larger patterns in education and elsewhere, our data indicate that the pandemic-necessitated shift to online learning put students from affluent households in more advantageous positions to maintain educational advantages over students from low income households. In line with the digital divide, these disparities manifested themselves in greater access to both computers and the internet. As the goal of public education is to provide equal opportunity to all students, we must be cognizant of existing disparities in the digital divide and consider their role in further creating inequalities in student education outcomes.