During mandatory distance learning, we saw new evidence of long standing inequities. One of the most glaring pain points has been the “homework gap” caused by resources not extending to learners who need them most. In fact, more than 9 million students don’t have reliable internet connectivity at home.

According to a recent survey by Digital Wish districts report the need to purchase hotspots for 12% of their students. The situations range from no access to the internet anywhere, to full families trying to do homework on a parent’s mobile phone. This report also shows that this homework gap is largest in rural areas.

Nate McClennen, Head of Innovation at Teton Science Schools and the Place Network, a national collective of small rural schools, said “Rural spaces often struggle with lack of connectivity, which decreases access to not only learning opportunities for students, but future potential employment opportunities as the rural landscape changes due to shifting economies. Students need access to learn and to build innovative solutions for future sustainable rural communities.”

Similarly, Gary Funk at the Rural Schools Collaborative added, “The COVID-19 crisis has glaringly exposed the digital shortcomings of many rural schools. Not only is broadband service uneven and lacking in many rural regions, students’ access to connecting devices varies widely. While most rural students are able to connect to digital learning, far too many rely on cell phones as the primary device. Exacerbating these issues are widespread differences in a given school’s ability to appropriately utilize digital technologies. We believe that until broadband access is universal, it will be challenging to mount a national effort to overcome the current disparities related to device access and methodology.”

To meet this demand and to try and ensure that this sort of gap never happens again, various organizations have put in place programs and initiatives to address this growing need.

Education Superhighway (ESH) developed Digital Bridge K12, an initiative to help every district in America to connect their students to high-speed internet. This initiative was piloted in San Francisco and was supported by the 1 Million Project Foundation. This pilot round helped to verify that this will not be a one-size fits all solution, something that ESH has believed since they started fighting for access rights and resources in 2012.

Knowledgeworks included access as one of the key areas of focus in their State Guidance for Building Resilient and Equitable Education Systems for reopening and ensuring equitable learning environments for learners in the future. It states that it is essential to “provide funding to districts to ensure universal access to broadband services and devices.”

COSN, the nation’s edtech directors, published guidance to assist with access in this trying moment. They have also worked with SETDA (State Educational Technology Directors Association) to create a joint advocacy effort that aims to close the “homework gap” and increase access to broadband.

Regardless of the reopening plan, districts will need to be able to toggle between distance and in-person learning for the foreseeable future, and this can’t be done without additional funding, resources, and strategy regarding providing hotspots and broadband access to those who currently are lacking.

This is a challenge that will continue to rear its ugly head, unless we are able to enforce the policy and resources now to combat it in the future. We appreciate the important work that these organizations are doing to address the problem and ensure access and learning opportunities for all learners.

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Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email Editor@GettingSmart.com with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

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