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Priority 1

Close the Digital Divide

Priority 1: Close the Digital Divide

The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that technology-supported learning will be part of the future of education and that all children must be provided with access. Schools may reopen only to close again for periods of time over the coming school year; some may reopen with schedules that blend distance learning with social distancing on-site; and, even when schools reopen, students will need to stay home if they have been exposed to the virus, so they may have to plug in to distance learning at any time. Even once the pandemic passes, natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and fires will continue to shutter schools for periods of time.

What Students Need

Computers and connectivity are to today’s schools what textbooks and chalkboards were to the schools of the past. Cell phone access is not enough. Every student needs access to high-speed connectivity and to computers that are adequate to support not only streaming of videos and access to information, but also the capacity to write and revise text; create spreadsheets and engage in mathematical modeling; engage in simulations; and develop PowerPoint presentations, websites, and web tools in various forms.

The pandemic has highlighted disparities in access to digital devices and the internet. School closures in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis have had a huge impact on families and learning—an impact felt most deeply in low-income communities and communities of color.

Even before the pandemic, there were stark digital divides along racial and ethnic lines. In 2018, the National Center for Education Statistics conducted a study of the percentage of Americans between the ages of 5 and 17 who had access to the internet. The study found wide differences by race and ethnicity (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1
Percentage of Students Without High-Speed Internet by Race and Ethnicity

Based on data from the 2018 census, roughly 30% of the 50 million k–12 students in the United States lacked either high-speed internet or devices with the capacity they need for easy access to digital learning at home.

According to a new report from Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group, based on data from the 2018 census, roughly 30% of the 50 million k–12 students in the United States lacked either high-speed internet or devices with the capacity they need for easy access to digital learning at home. Of these young people, nearly two thirds lacked both high-speed internet and a usable device. Furthermore, at least 300,000 teachers lacked high-speed internet adequate to teach online from home. A report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League, and UnidosUS shows that these disparities disproportionately impact students of color, students from low-income families, and students in rural communities.

While a number of states and school districts reduced this divide with investments in devices and hotspots to enable distance learning during school closings last spring, many of the investments were temporary, as companies offered free internet for short periods of time and devices were often pulled from in-school computer carts to which they will return.

A recent national survey from ParentsTogether in spring 2020 revealed that 13% of parents from low- income homes (earning less than $25,000 annually) reported lacking devices or internet connections, and they were nearly 10 times more likely to say their children were doing little or no remote learning than those from affluent homes (38% vs. 4%). Students from low-income homes were also 3 times more likely to report not having consistent access to a device (32% vs. 10%) and were 5 times more likely to attend a school without distance learning materials or activities (11% vs. 2%).

Another equity concern is access to both basic and assistive technologies needed to support students with individualized education plans. These students may need adaptive equipment and special software. They will also require different kinds of instructional planning and preparation, including ongoing evaluation to determine the appropriateness of particular online and hybrid approaches.

The digital divide parallels the educational divide, and unless it is closed now, it will result in an ever-widening learning gap. The current crisis provides an opportunity to close the educational equity gap and create new and transformative educational strategies based on deeper and authentic learning. The Common Sense Media report estimated that closing the divide will require at least $6 billion in immediate investments for infrastructure and devices at the federal level—of which half would be recurring costs each year. Also needed are changes in policy, so that internet connectivity is treated by federal and state regulators the same way we treat access to telephone services, with rate structures and subsidies that guarantee access and affordability.

What Policymakers and Educators Can Do

With connectivity now clearly essential to ongoing learning as well as families’ access to telehealth, employment, and needed benefits, some states and districts, as well as corporations and philanthropies, have made major investments in technology for students. At the federal level, opportunities already exist through the E-Rate program housed in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which schools had already been using for internet connectivity.1 Funds could be expanded and allocated through the FCC’s E-Rate program to provide broadband as well as hotspot access to rural areas of the country.

At the state level, there are some outstanding examples of progress being made to close the digital divide. Promising practices include stakeholder outreach and engagement, robust policy frameworks, planning and capacity building, and improved funding and operations, as we describe below.

Prioritize federal efforts to close the digital divide

Every student, no matter her or his living situation, deserves access to an adequate computing device and internet connectivity. An allocation of $500 per student would cover the costs for equipping a household with an inexpensive device, connecting to a high-speed internet provider, and funding training. Given the major economic downturn and state revenue declines accompanying pandemic-related shutdowns, federal recovery funds to education will be needed to supplement state budgets for this purpose, among others.

As outlined in the recent Common Sense Media report, federal policymakers should take swift policy action in the short term by passing the next stimulus bill with funding to ensure internet service and devices at home for students who lack them through expanded funding for federal E-Rate supports and through direct funds to states and districts. They should also take long-term action and invest funding to upgrade and close gaps in the nation’s broadband infrastructure.

Furthermore, future regulation of broadband should be modeled more closely on the regulation of the telephone industry, which provides incentives to providers and rate structures for households designed to ensure access in every home.

Closing the divide is critical not only to ensuring educational equity but also to sustaining economic security. The work of economist Brian Whitacre at Oklahoma State University demonstrates that there are major economic returns on rural broadband investment in both jobs and income.2 Despite past failures, policymakers in the United States now have an opportunity to bridge this divide with smart, sustainable, and well-funded policies that support those in need.

Expand broadband access through state and city initiatives

In February 2020, The Pew Charitable Trusts published a comprehensive state-by-state overview, How States Are Expanding Broadband Access. Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, noted in an interview that “for the better part of a decade, states have been rolling up their sleeves and making meaningful progress on bridging the digital divide. As leaders at all levels of government look for solutions to address broadband challenges, they can learn from states.”

At least nine states have made substantial gains in broadband access in recent years. Minnesota has placed most of its broadband program in statute and included clear goals for broadband expansion, a state Office of Broadband Development, and a fund to support broadband infrastructure, and launched the Minnesota K-12 Connect Forward Initiative in 2016. In West Virginia, the legislature established the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council to provide policy guidance and technical assistance to communities.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs centralizes the state’s financial and technical assistance to local governments and offers regional broadband planning grants. In Tennessee, the legislature passed a 2017 measure creating the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant Program to support broadband deployment in unserved areas in the state. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Broadband Office makes grants to support the deployment of broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state.

In 2016, the state of Wyoming was ranked No. 1 in the nation in broadband connectivity, having addressed the needs of 100% of its school districts in a sparsely populated, rural state.

Wyoming has also established itself as a leader in expanding access. In 2016, the state of Wyoming was ranked No. 1 in the nation in broadband connectivity, having addressed the needs of 100% of its school districts in a sparsely populated, rural state. This outcome was in large part because of a statewide education technology plan, which has as its goal to “better provide equal access to education through technology.” Each of these states has developed strong solutions for ensuring that every child has internet access.

Cleveland, OH, is a city-level example of access success. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the nonprofit DigitalC have worked together since the pandemic struck to hand out over 17,000 devices and provide 4,700 temporary hotspots. In partnership with, and with additional funding from, the city of Cleveland and MetroHealth, the district is paying DigitalC a discounted rate of $16 per household to install antennas and other equipment throughout the city.

Organize access to devices and connectivity

Once every home has the potential for internet access, many students will still need Wi-Fi and an internet-capable device at home in order to participate in distance and hybrid learning. When cellular service is the only viable option, students will need LTE-enabled devices or mobile hotspots. Many state and local reopening plans include a requirement that each district undertake a survey of device needs across families to determine how best to narrow the digital divide.

This work can be centralized in order to ensure quick delivery of laptops and other devices during a time when there are already disruptions in the supply chain. California has already surveyed all of its districts, and in April 2020 established a task force overseeing the California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund, a joint effort of the Governor’s Office, the State Board of Education, and the California Department of Education (CDE). The funds raised go directly to equip school districts with resources they need to enable distance learning. With contributions from corporations and foundations, the state has purchased hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots and Chromebooks for students to support district efforts. Many county offices and large districts, including Los Angeles, did the same to purchase devices and hotspots in bulk.

In May 2020, California Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan introduced a bill to close the digital divide by providing school districts financial relief through the elimination of the sales tax on device purchases. This new legislation, which is currently being amended in the state senate, builds upon prior efforts, including a 2017 measure sponsored by the California Emerging Technology Fund that created the California Advanced Services Fund Broadband Adoption Account, which provided $20 million for digital literacy programs. A cross-sector partnership between the California Public Utilities Commission and CDE was formed as part of a broadband in schools initiative to distribute $25 million from the California Teleconnect Fund for Wi-Fi hotspots and internet service for student households.

Nebraska has also quickly responded to both the immediate crisis and the longer-term challenge with the Launch Nebraska initiative, which contains a thorough set of digital learning guidelines. The state has established a hierarchy of digital learning needs, beginning with infrastructure (equity of broadband internet access to every home); proceeding to devices (a computing device for every student), software systems (learning management, content management, collaborative learning technologies, and the integration of these systems), and digital content (online digital resources); and finally to professional development and training (effective methods for teaching and learning in a digital world, whether virtual or face-to-face).

Policymakers can learn from these examples and others that inform efforts to bridge the digital divide. Every family will need both broadband and device access in order to have an uninterrupted education. With COVID-19 surging across broad swaths of the country, learning cannot occur without these foundational investments. Left unaddressed, the digital divide will continue to widen gaps in achievement and attainment. Even with uncertain federal funding and local tax revenues, it will be imperative for states, cities, and districts to move swiftly to make blended and distance learning possible for every child.

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Bauer-Kahan Bill Aims to Close the ‘Digital Divide’ in California Schools (

This news article from May 2020 discusses new proposed California legislation to close the digital divide across the state.

Broadband Program (Colorado Department of Local Affairs)

This website developed by the state of Colorado provides an interactive map of completed broadband programs as well as example requests that local governments can submit for additional broadband assistance.

California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund (GoFundMe)

This GoFundMe page raised over $12 million to close the digital divide through the California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund.

California Emerging Technology Fund Site (California Emerging Technology Fund)

This website describes the establishment of a separate nonprofit corporation to close the digital divide in California, which draws upon funding from major telecommunications companies.

California moves to close digital divide as schools shift online (EdSource)

This article from April 2020 describes the creation of a new task force in California to close the digital divide--a governance structure that other states can emulate.

Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning (Common Sense Media)

This report, written in partnership with Boston Consulting Group, analyzes the digital divide for America's k-12 public school students and teachers and provides strategies for moving forward to close the digital divide.

CMSD, DigitalC Will Expand Internet Access (Cleveland Metropolitan School District)

This press release explains how Cincinnati City Public Schools and the nonprofit DigitalC partnered to provide $16/month broadband access for families in the district.

COVID-19 and School Funding: What to Expect and What You Can Do (LPI)

This blog by LPI Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst Michael Griffith from April 2020 discusses the budget crises that states will face and recommends additional federal funding and flexibility in how funds are spent.

Digital Learning Plan (Wyoming Department of Education)

This 2017-18 framework helped the state achieve 100% broadband connectivity and become the national leader in high-speed access.

E-Rate: Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries (FCC)

The federal E-Rate program has expanded broadband access in rural communities across the country and could be used as an avenue for additional federal funding.

Education Equity in Crisis: The Digital Divide (The Education Trust West )

This April 2020 blog post maps the digital divide in California and suggests action steps for state, district, and school leaders to take to ensure that every child has access to distance learning during the pandemic.

EmpowerCLE (DigitalC)

This nonprofit organization provides a growing number of communities in the greater Cleveland area with $18/month internet access--a potential model for philanthropic partnerships in other states.

Governor Newsom Announces Cross-Sector Partnerships to Support Distance Learning and Bridge the Digital Divide (Office of Governor G. Newsom)

This press release from April 2020 discusses how Governor Newsom of California has developed a new public-private partnership to expand broadband and provide devices to every child across the state.

How States Are Expanding Broadband Access (The Pew Charitable Trust)

This report identifies and explores promising practices for connecting unserved communities through examples in nine states.

K-12 Connect Forward Initiative (Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development)

This initiative supports districts looking to expand their broadband access and also provides technical assistance for remote and blended learning.

Launch Nebraska (Nebraska Department of Education)

This website organizes all of the digital resources and strategic planning for the state of Nebraska on how it plans to close the digital divide.

N.Y.C. Schools, Nation’s Largest District, Will Not Fully Reopen in Fall (New York Times)

This news article from July 2020 discusses why New York City Public Schools did not open as scheduled in fall 2020 and discusses several potential instructional models.

Office of Broadband Development (Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development)

The website for Minnesota's Office of Broadband Development includes maps, data, and broadband speed tests as well as a grant program to increase access to educational opportunity across the state.

Parents Together Spring 2020 Technology Survey (Parents Together)

This April 2020 article reveals the results of a national survey of parents, who are concerned about increased screen time as well as the need for developmentally safe social media platforms to help children stay connected.

Reopening Schools in the Context of COVID-19: Health and Safety Guidelines From Other Countries (LPI)

This LPI brief from May 2020 offers an international comparison of how five different countries are encouraging sick students and those exposed to COVID-19 to remain at home and participate in remote learning.

Return to School Roadmap (Opportunity Labs)

This road map neatly describes what to do first, what to do before school opens, and what to do when schools are open and operating, including districtwide procedures for devices.

Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap (Alliance for Excellent Education)

This interactive article allows readers to visualize the extent of the digital divide in their area and provides cost estimates for ensuring broadband access for all students at home.

Supporting Students With Disabilities in K-12 Online and Blended Learning (Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute)

This comprehensive report discusses how to support students with disabilities in online learning environments, and it offers a series of pedagogical considerations for different types of disabilities.

Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act (Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development)

This website details the three components of Tennessee's Broadband Accessibility Act, including a Rural Task Force to evaluate the use of new grants to improve broadband access.

LA Unified Faces $200 Million in Unbudgeted Costs to Cope With Pandemic (EdSource)

This article from April 2020 analyzes the unbudgeted COVID-related costs incurred by the Los Angeles Unified School District, showcasing the budgetary problems awaiting most districts in the coming years.

The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council (West Virginia Department of Commerce)

The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council website provides policies, plans, and other resources for extending broadband access to underserved areas of West Virginia.

What Will It Take to Stabilize Schools in the Time of COVID-19? (LPI)

This blog by LPI Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst Michael Griffith from May 2020 provides a calculator to predict how much COVID-19 will cost schools through his analysis of state budgets.

Wisconsin Broadband Office (WBO) (Public Service Commission of Wisconsin)

This website for the Wisconsin Broadband Office includes emergency resources for families and an internet discount finder.


  1. Puma, M. J., Chaplin, D. D., & Pape, A. D. (2000). E-Rate and the digital divide: A preliminary analysis from the integrated studies of educational technology. Chicago, IL: Urban Institute. research/publication/e-rate-and-digital-divide.
  2. Whitacre, B., Gallardo, R., & Strover, S. (2014). Broadband’s contribution to economic growth in rural areas: Moving towards a causal relationship. Telecommunications Policy, 38(11), 1011–1023.