Thanks to the pandemic, much of our world is now virtual. Technology has made it possible for people to connect, even when they need to practice social distancing. Students are learning remotely, friends are hosting all sorts of celebrations online, and telehealth has made access to health professionals easier. Virtual programming and remote learning are an absolute necessity for education. But what happens when students don’t have internet access or a computer to use?
While the connectivity issue isn’t new and has been well-documented, this historic pandemic has exposed the disparity that threatens educational opportunities for millions of students across the country. The problem is not exclusive to students in rural areas. For many students in urban settings, especially in areas with high concentrations of poor students, subscribing is a financial burden. It can have an enormous impact on student outcomes, exacerbating economic inequality. Research conducted by Michigan State University published earlier this year showed that students without internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access are half a grade point below those with fast access. It’s a gap that can have ripple effects that may last an entire life.
A study by Microsoft in 2018 estimated that about half of Americans—163 million people—do not have high-speed internet at home. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) puts the number even higher, noting that as the US races to be the first country to roll out super fast 5G internet connectivity nationwide, 21 million Americans remain without any broadband connection at all in 2017. BroadbandNow, a consumer website, puts the figure at double that.
The Digital Divide in Portland
The pandemic laid bare the disparity caused by the digital divide in Portland. Officials from the City of Portland report that 32,000 households in the city don’t have access to the internet, and half of them don’t have a device. Families without access to internet service or computers are at a significant disadvantage for education, searching for jobs searching for important information about public health and other crucial information. The situation also deepens the inequities in the community.
Closing the Gap
REAP, a multicultural youth leadership program operating year-round is taking steps to close the gap in ways that will help students succeed and help their families who may benefit from using a computer and online services. The organization has launched Fund the Future to raise funds to provide its students and their families in need with laptops and hotspots. The money raised so far has allowed REAP the opportunity to allow students to Apply for one of the new laptops!
The City of Portland has also taken action by creating a workgroup dedicated to addressing the issue. The group has initiated a pilot project to give more residents access. Within days of starting the project, the city received more than 50 organizations requesting 3,500 Chromebooks, illustrating the magnitude of the need.
Everyone can play a crucial role in developing and nurturing the next generation of leaders. Please get involved and help us provide students with the support they need to impact the world positively.