UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

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MARCH 2022

Haleigh Hoskins, John R. Lewis Social Justice Fellow


Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

Introduction While technology equity1 has been at the center of racial equity discourse for over two decades, COVID-19 has ushered in a new dependency, as well as shifted the U.S.’s attention to inequitable technology access and its potential effects on future generations. Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, we have seen the critical necessity for internet,2 broadband,3 and technology for Black American families and children. This policy brief explores COVID-19’s contribution to widening the digital divide and its detrimental impact on K-12 Black students’ accessibility and connectivity. Further, it encourages legislative action addressing practical solutions to closing the digital divide.

Black households are 3.3 times more likely to not have home internet access than white households and 66% more likely to not have home internet than Hispanic households.

Why the Digital Divide Matters? Although the term has evolved over the years, the digital divide refers to the growing gap between communities of privilege who have ready access to technology, internet, and broadband and communities who have little to no access (The San Diego Foundation, 2021). The already prominent racial wealth gap coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic adds to the connectivity disparity causing an increased divide between Black and white households.

1  Technology equity (also known as “tech equity”) addresses disparities in technological access due to differences in gender, race, geography, socioeconomic status, and physical conditions. 2  Internet is defined as a global electronic network that connects computer systems across the globe. To connect to the internet, one must have an internet service provider (ISP) which provides broadband internet access. 3  Broadband is defined as one’s connection to the internet. This is technology used for wide bandwidth data transmission, allowing for multiple signals. Examples of this include satellite, cable, DSL, fiber, or mobile services.


CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

The Progress Index (2021) reports, “Black households are 3.3 times more likely to not have home internet access than white households and 66% more likely to not have home internet than Hispanic households.” The COVID-19 health emergency forced educators, parents, and students to accept a new reality and posed many challenges, especially as ready access to technology became a requirement for learning and academic success. Students across the U.S. not only battled digital connectivity hurdles and learning loss, but, also, access to technology. Black youth, specifically, were at a greater disadvantage than their non-Black peers due to these challenges and already existent systemic racism, exposing a lack of technological access among Black households. • Black households generally are 1.3 to 1.4 time more likely than white households to have limited access to the internet (UCLA, 2020).


no internet



no computer

• Twenty-one percent of Black or mixedrace households with children in public and private school reported not always having internet available for educational purposes (Tomer & George, 2021).


report not always having internet

• Nearly 31% of Black households are without high-speed home internet and 17% have no computer (The National Urban League, 2022).


• Approximately 80% of white households own a desktop or laptop computer compared to 69% of Black households. (Atske & Perrin, 2021).






Researchers have found that across the education system, Black students are less likely to have access to technological equipment—leading to a significant learning loss. Some academic institutions and school systems have made significant efforts to mitigate the digital divide’s effects on accessibility and improve remote learning, providing students with equipment needed to interact virtually, such as computers and headphones. For instance, the Wake County Public School System (with a majority white student body) located in North Carolina spent about $48 million on new devices to transition to


CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

deliberate 1 to 14 computing (Klein, 2021). However, not all school districts are able to make this quick transition, especially those located in lower-income and minority areas. According to the Department of Education (2020), one in three teachers in the majority of Black institutions reported that their students lacked the technology necessary to take part in virtual learning. Technology inaccessibility and issues of connectivity contribute to increased barriers for Black students when trying to complete homework and academic assignments without reliable internet, broadband, and/or technology as well as overall lower academic performance. As a result of these technological barriers, Black students are more likely to have lower GPAs (Boston Consulting Group, 2021).

The long-term implications of learning loss, as a result of the digital divide, only lead to a wider achievement gap and potential lifetime losses in earnings for Black Americans.

Poor academic achievement, however, can have greater impacts beyond K-12 education. Black students, particularly high school students, are more likely to drop out and/or less likely to pursue post-secondary education. Michigan State University reported that the effects of technological racism left Black students with fewer and lower-quality resources, including access to college, job training, and workforce readiness (Kayitsinga, n.d). “This [performance] gap leads to a 4% to 6% lower expected annual income, amounting to a $22 billion to $33 billion annual GDP loss across the K–12 cohort caught in the digital divide.” (Boston Consulting Group, 2021). The long-term implications of learning loss, as a result of the digital divide, only lead to a wider achievement gap and potential lifetime losses in earnings for Black Americans.

4  1-to-1 computing refers to academic institutions that provide students with a personal electronic device in order to access the internet and online school resources as well as complete virtual schoolwork.


CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

Solutions to Close the Divide GOVERNMENT SOLUTIONS Over the last two years, the government has made attempts to close the divide. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, states and districts activated and pushed for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act— federal funding to close connectivity gaps in schools. Boston Consulting Group (2021) reported that this effort closed 20-40% of the connectivity divide and 40-60% of the device divide nationally, having a significant impact on Black students. However, this solution was short-lived. While the overall digital divide narrowed, more than 75% of state and local efforts will expire in the next three years, negatively affecting lower-income and minority students (Boston Consulting Group, 2021). In December 2020, Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021—additional COVID-19 funding which included more than $50 billion for K-12 students to support distance and remote learning (U.S. Department of Education, 2021). However, this funding was introduced by legislators to fulfill a short-term need introduced by the pandemic. While commendable, this funding is not sustainable, sufficient, nor targeted to Black students most in need. INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER SOLUTIONS The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has taken a unique approach. On December 31, 2021, the FCC launched an Affordable Connectivity Program. In a publicprivate partnership with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), this program provides broadband to eligible households5 (mainly low-income) to assist with work and school

5  Eligible households include participants who are at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines or are eligible to participate in certain government assistance programs (SNAP, Medicaid, WIC), specific tribal programs (Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance or Tribal TANF), receive Federal Pell Grant, and/or receive the National School Lunch program or Free Breakfast Program.


CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

amidst the pandemic. This benefit allows for eligible households to receive a discount on internet service up to $30 and a one-time $100 discount on equipment from participating providers6 (Federal Communications Commission, n.d.). ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T have partnered with the FCC to provide low-cost internet and broadband, as well as high-speed services to low-income households. Comcast’s Xfinity launched the Internet Essentials (IE) program, the nation’s largest lowincome internet adoption program, nearly 10 years ago. Similarly, Access from AT&T was launched six years ago with the goal to provide internet connection at an affordable price in the home for families and students of lower-socioeconomic status. These programs have connected more than 10 million low-income Americans to home internet and broadband. While these initiatives attempt to fill the gaps left behind by the public sector, the slow implementation of digital adoption in rural and low-income neighborhoods causes concern.

Policy Recommendations Lawmakers should consider the following to address the digital divide for Black students: Identify connectivity and accessibility gaps within Congressional districts to educate and inform policy priorities on the issues of connectivity and accessibility; Support sustainable, long-term legislative funding efforts that focus on expanding access to connectivity in predominantly rural and low-income (mainly Black) communities throughout the U.S.; Support the Federal Communication Commission’s initiatives and partnerships with Internet Service Providers to expand broadband access to predominantly rural and low-income (mainly Black) communities throughout the U.S.; and Incentivize public-private partnerships between local schools, Internet Service Providers, and community-based organizations in the Congressional district.

6  Providers include internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast’s Xfinity, Cox Internet, Spectrum, AT&T, RCN Internet, and others.


CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

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CPAR | UNPLUGGED: Examining COVID-19 and its Technological Impact on Black Students

Solomon, D., & Hamilton, D. (2020). The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Racial Wealth Gap. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/coronavirus-pandemic-racial-wealth-gap/. Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside the Classroom. (2018). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017098/ind_12.asp. The San Diego Foundation. (2021, December 13). What is the digital divide? The San Diego Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.sdfoundation.org/news-events/sdf-news/what-is-the-digital-divide/ Tomer, A. & George, C. (2021, June 1) The American Rescue Plan is the broadband down payment the country needs. Brookings Institute. https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-american-rescue-plan-is-the-broadband-down-paymentthe-country-needs/ UCLA. (2020, December 8). Despite improved access, digital divide persists for minority, low-income students. UCLA. Retrieved from https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/digital-divide-persists-for-minority-low-income-students. U.S. Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights. (2021, June 9). Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/20210608-impacts-of-covid19.pdf Zakrzewski, C. (2021, June 15). Bipartisan group of senators introduces $40 billion bill to close the digital divide. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/06/15/digital-divide-bridge-actsenate/.



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