As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter our online experience, accessing the digital world has become increasingly vital. Though many in the Georgetown community may take our online presence for granted, for students in Washington, D.C. public schools, the sudden reliance on home technology has heightened the severity of an existing problem: lack of basic technology access and usage among low-income households. Students who are unable to enroll in school online or attend virtual lessons will inevitably fall behind on their education and future career opportunities.
Although D.C. public schools are scheduled to return to in-person learning in fall 2021, online learning will remain an important resource due to its flexibility and convenience. Closing the digital divide will give all students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, the ability to enrich their education with online resources. In order to ensure its students have equitable access to technology, the D.C. Public Schools must provide an adequate supply of technological devices and accessible instructions to students and parents.
Under Mayor Muriel Bowser, the city has taken steps to provide free internet access. The Internet for All Initiative, a $3.3 million project aimed at providing internet to 25,000 low-income students, was launched in September 2020 as a much-needed response to the virtual school year.
Despite the program’s efforts, however, schools have simply been unable to keep up with the overwhelming demand for additional devices. In a 2020 DCPS survey, 60% of families reported needing a device for the upcoming school year. Those who were unable to obtain one from their school turned to local organizations for laptop donations with varying success. By depriving a group of students of technological tools, schools create an impossible learning environment for students without digital access.
In addition to impacting students, online learning can create a barrier in communication between schools and families. Many schools struggled to distribute critical information about enrollment forms and learning platforms due to many families’ frequently changing addresses and phone numbers depending on the monthly budget. As a result, enrollment numbers substantially decreased and school officials resorted to knocking on doors to help parents enroll. Communication difficulties were even more prominent with immigrant families, many of whom were completely unfamiliar with navigating school websites. This lack of parental engagement with digital learning translated into an even lower student attendance rate among those most impacted by the pandemic: a Washington Teachers’ Union survey reported that 58% of teachers said their students were “regularly logging in” less than half of the time. With little individual support from school officials, it’s no surprise that many students are unable or unwilling to regularly attend class.
The need for widespread internet access and digital proficiency can be applied to future digital learning environments, which will only become more common. Digital literacy campaigns are the solution to bringing all D.C. residents into the online world. While schools have hosted webinars to help parents and students navigate the necessary sites for online learning, they are ill-equipped to provide continuous support to their large student bodies. Thus, outside organizations such as local nonprofits remain vital players in the effort to universalize digital access.
One example of a successful community partnership is a program initiated by the Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance, which granted $90,000 to three organizations in order to hire “digital navigators,” a position designed to assist Philadelphia residents with technological issues through phone or email. A multitude of existing D.C. organizations are also dedicated to equipping families with technological tools. Three prominent local groups, Greater Washington Community Foundation, Education Forward D.C. and the D.C. Public Education Fund, formed the D.C. Education Equity Fund to support D.C. public schools in distributing hotspots and devices. These organizations have already built a relationship with the community; the next step is to equip them with the funds to provide digital literacy training and support to D.C. residents.
Ultimately, a sustainable solution requires the creation of resources that continue beyond the pandemic. The Internet for All Initiative, for example, has helped thousands of families, but with only one year of guaranteed internet, its beneficiaries are left wondering when their access will be cut. Closing the digital divide requires the continuous effort of schools, families and advocacy organizations to support every student in pursuing a high-quality education.
Angela Yu is a first-year in the School of Foreign Service. District Discourse appears online every other week.