During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in 47 states, including Arizona, closed their doors, leaving 55 million students at home. And the digital divide — the fact that a sizeable population lacks access to high-speed internet or learning devices at home — became critical to address.
Arizona school districts had to pivot quickly to online distance learning with no guarantee that each student had adequate access to the internet and proper devices. As children continue with hybrid learning amid the pandemic, large numbers of students still are unable to fully participate in the virtual classrooms, which are key to the remote learning models being used.
The digital divide is much larger than previously estimated. It had been reported that in Arizona, one in four students lacked access to the internet, but that number is closer to 30 percent, according to a state-by-state report, “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning,” produced this summer by Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group.
When we talk about the digital divide, it is important to understand there are four interconnected components to solving the equity problem laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis — ensuring students and families have access to:
- high-speed broadband internet
- devices (computers or tablets)
- high-quality, standards-aligned instructional content and supports that propel student learning and protect student privacy
- support, guidance and professional development for both parents and educators to boost their capacity and confidence to supplement and support distance learning
While most kids, parents and teachers across the Valley have been able to carry out online learning, more than 335,000 of Arizona’s K-12 students lack high-speed internet access, and more than 19 percent — about 220,000 students — lack access to appropriate devices. Of those dismal numbers, Black, Latinx and Native American students, as well as those in rural communities and households (56 percent), face even greater barriers to accessing online learning. Additionally, 10 percent of Arizona’s teachers lack adequate access to the internet.
A number of Arizona communities rank high on The National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s 2019 list of worst-connected cities in the U.S. The report’s household internet access data looked at 625 American cities with populations of 65,000 or more. Glendale ranked 85th for households without broadband; Phoenix was 159, and Flagstaff came in at 238. Several other Valley cities also were considered some of the worst connected.
Overall, Arizona ranks 36th among states for broadband access, according to a 2019 analysis by the advocacy group BroadbandNow. Consider this: Fewer than 1 percent of Apache County residents have internet coverage.
Educators recently surveyed by Common Sense said the No. 1 problem their students face during this crisis is the lack of bandwidth or connectivity. Even in 1:1 school districts — where each child gets a laptop or tablet device — students can’t always connect, and if they can, they have limited bandwidth. Teachers say it’s challenging, because they want rigorous lessons, but the technology inequities make it difficult for all students to have the same learning opportunity.
“We are dividing the families who can pay for internet access vs. the families who can’t,” one Phoenix teacher said. In addition, she added, homeless students have no internet access, and their only option is what is provided by the school district.
The disparity is so dramatic that 48 Arizona school superintendents recently wrote letters to Gov. Doug Ducey urgently requesting public/private partnerships to address this issue. Fortunately, a few collaborative efforts are working to help close the divide in Arizona:
School Connect brings together community partners who are working to provide computers and internet service to students without access.
Cox Communications Connect2Compete provides qualifying families home internet for under $10 per month plus access to affordable refurbished computers.
Computers 2 Kids recycles and refurbishes computers and provides them to families in need.
Connect Arizona provides an interactive map showing where free Wi-Fi is available throughout the state, including public libraries, schools, internet providers, community organizations and others. The map was developed through a collaboration between Common Sense, School Connect, the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records division, the Arizona Commerce Authority and the AZ Broadband Stakeholder Network. Additionally, the site, offered in both English and Spanish, includes a free tech-support hotline and information, social service resources, educational support and information about special broadband discounts. Organizations that are able to offer free Wi-Fi in their communities are encouraged to fill out a form on the site to be included on the map, which is updated regularly.
Wide Open School, created in response to the pandemic, is Common Sense Media’s collection of free online learning experiences for students in PreK-12. The site, which includes resources in Spanish, also provides information for families on how to access low-cost or no-cost broadband and devices and provides a hotline/clearinghouse that helps families access urgent services addressing health, hunger, shelter, and psychological needs. And Common Sense continues its #ConnectAllStudents campaign, calling on Congress to close the digital divide by funding community broadband internet services.