The homework gap refers to the potential inequality in access to broadband infrastructure and internet-accessible devices that can affect low-income and rural students disproportionately. The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has highlighted and deepened the digital divide.
According to a report by the Pew Research Center, roughly 63 percent of Americans in rural settings have broadband internet access at home, 12 percent less than the national average. Rural learners are less likely to have internet-accessible devices besides a smartphone. The ability to provide equitable access and deliver content to all learners is an issue that if they weren’t already, rural schools and districts are grappling with now in light of all instruction taking place online.
New Hampshire has created innovative approaches to address internet access and online instruction, with one of the greatest successes involving opening up lines of communication with new stakeholders. Early in the Coronavirus pandemic, a few large internet service providers, such as Xfinity, removed the subscriber requirement for access to their wifi hotspots. However, in rural northern New Hampshire, these hotspots didn’t exist and smaller local companies and local service providers filled this role with similar products. Direct outreach by the state’s Commissioner of Education to local companies and service providers resulted in a 95 percent success rate in either opening wifi access or lifting previous download limits. Additionally, through the Commissioner’s outreach, eligibility for Xfinity’s program for free or reduced-cost internet for low-income individuals was expanded, and users with previous outstanding bills that were formally ineligible for this program could now have access.
Having internet access alone isn’t helpful if learners and their families don’t have a device that can access content, so New Hampshire has been distributing Chromebooks to students throughout the state. Some charter schools had surplus computer equipment, and opening up a dialogue between education systems that might not normally take place resulted in additional devices available for the public school system. For some Career Technical Education (CTE) programs that required specialized hardware, desktop computers and monitors were distributed to students.
A change in the successful delivery of educational content also relies on professional development for teachers to adapt to new pedagogical challenges. New Hampshire created professional development resources and instruction for teachers to assist in successfully transitioning to remote learning.
“With additional funding, we would be able to expand simulation technology for CTE, including virtual reality technologies,” says Eric Frauwirth, New Hampshire’s State CTE Director and State Administrator with the New Hampshire Department of Education. Students in programs that have hands-on requirements for clinical hours, like welding or nursing, could use this simulation technology to achieve program and licensure requirements. Rather than have these located at the scattered technical centers within the state, this new technology could be distributed to local sending high schools with reserved time for students to use these technologies.
States and local leaders have taken necessary steps to ensure each learner has access to virtual education, however, there needs to be much more support to scale innovative solutions. Advance CTE has called for a strong investment in CTE funding in order to lessen the digital divide, and the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act includes $1 billion for CTE funding, which could be used to expand the infrastructure necessary to support these programs. In addition, the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020, which Advance CTE supports, introduced by Senate Ed Markey (D-MA) would authorize $4 billion to help close the homework gap.
Meredith Hills, Policy Associate