August 21, 2020
Addressing Barriers to Virtual Learning for Virginia Students
As the new school year begins, students will face a back-to-school environment far more unique than any in modern history. For students returning virtually or in a hybrid manner, this challenging transition is made even more difficult for students who do not have access to or cannot afford reliable, high quality internet. This inequity has for the most part been left up to cash-strapped local governments to try and resolve. On Tuesday, the governor proposed state assistance ($84.5 million) to expand broadband access to presently unserved areas. As state legislators review the governor’s proposal, they should also consider providing additional resources to families and schools to help with financial barriers to internet access and additional rent and mortgage relief.
Despite the importance of the internet and digital devices for everyday activities, even prior to the pandemic, thousands of Virginia families still lack access. According to 2018 5-year ACS Census data, over 190,000 Virginia households with people under 18 lack an internet subscription or do not have any computing device. Missing either of these components severely limits students from completing schoolwork digitally, and attending school in the same ways as their peers.
Despite conventional assumptions, students in both rural and urban areas struggle with internet and device access. A 2019 Commonwealth Connect report estimates that as many as 1 in 3 residents of rural Virginia lack access to high-speed broadband and a new analysis from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) found that almost 40% of students without internet access actually live in or around urban areas.
Unfortunately, Black and Hispanic students face even more barriers to home internet access and digital devices. In Virginia, 12% of all white households lack a subscription to the internet or any computing device. For Hispanic households, that number rises to 15%, while for Black households, the number is almost twice the amount as white households, at 22%. For households with computers, Black households are nearly twice as likely to lack access to broadband (higher speed) internet subscription than white households.
Even for those students who have the benefit of internet access and a computing device, more support can be provided. Students without laptops or desktop computers also have more difficulty completing longer term assignments (such as research papers) exclusively on their phones.
While internet access is crucial, it won’t help students if they don’t also have access to housing. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession have made housing stability for low-income renters much more difficult. One in five adult renters in Virginia was behind on rent in mid-July, and national data shows that renters who are parents or otherwise live with children are nearly twice as likely to be behind on rent compared to adults not living with anyone under age 18. Black and Latinx adults are more likely to be renters and therefore are more impacted by these challenges.
While the administration has provided $50 million for rent and mortgage relief, this is a small fraction of the total need. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has estimated that it would cost Virginia $2.8 billion to provide sufficient housing assistance between May 2020 and June 2021 for all Virginia renters who have been impacted by job loss–advocates in Virginia have requested a smaller allocation of $1 billion.
Solutions to these problems need to take several factors into account. The first is the cause of the lack of internet or a device. For some students, especially rural students, it is an issue of infrastructure: broadband simply has not reached their region yet. For these students, the governor’s proposal to increase funding for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), a program which extends broadband to areas throughout the state, can play an important role. Lawmakers should consider adding an amendment to the reallocation instructing the program to track progress on closing the racial digital divide in the state.
However, affordability is also a major concern – in many areas of the state, students may have broadband in their area, but their families are unable to afford it. Establishing mobile hotspots and distributing devices with keyboards with internet enabled are positive first steps in addressing this divide. The state government has helped some amount in the short run by designating millions in flexible emergency federal CARES funds to localities that could be used for short-term access solutions, as well as the governor’s allocations specifically for internet and device access, but localities are already worrying about when this money runs out and many other reopening costs.
With many schools on the hook for purchasing devices and internet for their students this fall, the state should provide additional flexible dollars to schools to be able to make these short-term investments. The Fund Our Schools coalition has called on lawmakers to provide $600 million in emergency flexible funding during the special legislative session that started on August 18, which could go to meet this need.
The state could also expand affordable internet access to families by establishing a statewide broadband assistance program. For example, legislation was recently considered in Illinois to create a broadband assistance program that would provide free broadband service to families whose incomes are at or below 100% of the federal poverty line ($21,720 for a family of three in 2020). Families with annual household incomes above 100% but below 135% of the federal poverty line and families who have a member who qualifies for SNAP, SSI, or other benefit program would qualify for a credit of around $10 a month at minimum to pay toward their internet service. Virginia could consider a similar program in order to distribute resources quickly and directly to families who need it most.
Federal action is also needed to address affordability and provide internet to families. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could modify the federal E-Rate Program to allow for it to subsidize home internet access, as education leaders have requested, and Congress can approve additional funds to expand its reach. The Emergency Educational Connections Act introduced in the Senate and House would expand the reach of the E-Rate program beyond schools and libraries and provide billions in federal assistance to help cover costs. Virginia Sens. Warner and Kaine and Reps. McEachin, Luria, Spanberger, and Wexton are all cosponsors. These changes and funds are critical. Community buildings like libraries act as digital lifelines for many families, yet the public health situation changes the ability of these buildings to be used or makes it dangerous to do so.
Even if state leaders acquire additional funding to support schools purchasing hotspots and internet for students, the fact remains that if the infrastructure is not in place this fall, some students will not be able to access the internet regardless. Especially for these students and other students that have barriers to learning virtually, Virginia will need to support schools to offer remedial measures for students when they eventually return to the classroom. All students will have missed valuable instructional time, but these students will have additional barriers to instruction and will need extra support to catch up to peers who continue to have access to more learning resources.
The state could also further regulate or require action from internet service providers (ISPs) to address the digital divide. In particular, the state could require ISPs to support distribution of publicly available data showing access and subscriptions to eliminate the guesswork and individual data collection that many localities have to do to ensure equity for their students. The state also should continue discussing and researching measures that some localities and local leaders have proposed – including paying for broadband for households that cannot afford it, considering broadband partnerships, or possibly designating ISPs as utilities under state law.
Addressing the systemic inequities in internet access will not be easy, nor will the results over the coming months be perfect. However, it is undeniably a necessary step to make sure that every student will be able to continue their education this year, reduce the achievement gap, and provide a 21st century tool for learning.