With the number of coronavirus infections surging, school districts across the United States are grappling with decisions about whether and how to re-open this fall. For online learning to be effective, students need access to computers and high-speed internet access, but a new analysis and interactive dashboard by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) show sharp digital and economic divides among school-age children across states and between racial and ethnic groups.
In 2018, roughly 10% of U.S. children ages 5 to 17 did not have a computer—desktop, laptop, or tablet—at home, and 23% did not have home access to paid high-speed internet.1 Fully one-fourth of all school-age children were lacking either a computer or high-speed internet. Children without computers or high-speed internet at home were already at an educational disadvantage before the coronavirus pandemic due to the growing need for students to access resources and submit assignments online. Many relied on computers and internet access at school or a local library to complete their work. As the pandemic prompted libraries to close and schools across the country shut down and moved to online instruction, this digital divide has become even more critical.
A racial and ethnic digital divide also persists. Half of all American Indian/Alaska Native children lack either computers or paid high-speed internet access (or both) at home. More than one-third of Black and Latinx children lack computers or high-speed internet at home, compared with only one-fifth of non-Hispanic white children and one in seven Asian/Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) children.
Economic barriers contribute to the digital divide between racial and ethnic groups. Poverty rates range from 10% among non-Hispanic white children ages 5 to 17 to 31% among Black children. American Indian/Alaska Native and Latinx children also have poverty rates far above the national average of 17%.
Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Latinx school-age children are two to three times more likely to live in households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits than white or Asian/Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander children. Nearly 40% of Black and 35% of American Indian/Alaska Native school-age children live in households receiving SNAP benefits. Children whose households receive SNAP benefits are automatically eligible to receive free meals at school—which provide an essential source of daily nutrition for many of these children. With schools shut down, children of color whose families live in poverty and receive SNAP benefits are at much greater risk of going hungry and not receiving the nutrition they need during the pandemic.
As schools shut down in spring 2020, some districts like Los Angeles Unified tried to address the digital divide by distributing laptops to all students who needed them. In addition, some districts provided internet access to students without it by distributing hot spots or data plans. However, these solutions were not economically feasible in many districts serving low-income communities of color such as Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. With 10 of the 15 largest school districts already deciding to begin the new school year online as of early August, reducing the digital divide and providing free and reduced-price meals for children who need them has become a daunting challenge across the country.
Unemployment rates remain at record highs, and with the supplemental $600 unemployment payments ending and Congress unable to agree on a new stimulus package, poverty levels and demand for SNAP benefits are both likely to rise this fall. A growing economic divide may further exacerbate the digital divide among school-age children, putting even more students at risk of falling further behind.
- Read the full analysis Children, Coronavirus, and the Digital Divide: Native American, Black, and Hispanic Students at Greater Educational Risk During Pandemic on the Population Reference Bureau website.
- Learn more about the Population Reference Bureau.
- Check out the NNED Back-to-School resource list.
- Learn more about the Interactive Dashboard.