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In-Depth: Bridging the digital divide as students return to class

Advocates say access and education must continue
Posted at 5:58 AM, Aug 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-30 09:46:56-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Education advocates worry that returning to in-person classes will worsen the digital divide.

"The inequities are systemic," says Gloria Carrol, the CEO/President of the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE). "The digital divide existed long before the pandemic. It was exacerbated and deepened as a result of the pandemic."

The digital divide is a lack of access to computer technology and broadband internet among low-income and rural residents. During the pandemic, schools, local governments, nonprofits, and businesses distributed computers, tablets, and WiFi hot spots to ensure everyone got connected for online learning.

They also provided free or low-cost broadband internet access.

Carrol worries that will all go away as schools enter the next phase of their "new normal."

"That divide may be widening again because districts and schools took back that equipment," she says. "That equipment made it possible for families to enter the digital world."

Numbers from the San Diego County of Education back up her claim. In January 2020, before the pandemic, an SDCOE survey found that around 300,000 students needed a computer. It also found 100,000 lacked broadband internet access.

By January 2021, those numbers had dropped to around 38,000 and 22,000, respectively.

Carrol says schools should keep supplying students with the equipment they need. But she says equipment is only part of the issue.

"We applaud those efforts to make broadband access more equitable. We applaud and support additional equipment. But we firmly believe that you need the third part of the equation to really work, and that's digital literacy," she says.

Carrol compares it to a car, saying a nice Tesla or Rolls-Royce is worthless to a family if they don't have the keys to drive it. In the same vein, she says it's crucial to teach students and families how to use the internet and new technology to be part of the digital world.

"Ensuring families have the skills and abilities to do that successfully and robustly, whether it's to apply for a new job, or to do telehealth medicine, that's the last piece of the puzzle that we need to shore up and strengthen," she says.