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Students Face Major Computer and Internet Access Gaps During COVID-19 and Beyond

A row of students taking a test. | iStock
Support Provided By
USC Price Center

Published in partnership with the USC Price Center for Social Innovation in support of the Neighborhood Data for Social Change platform (NDSC): The platform is a free, publicly available online data resource that provides reliable, aggregated data at the city, neighborhood, and census tract level. The mission of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation is to develop ideas and illuminate strategies to improve the quality of life for people in low-income urban communities.

COVID-19 has affected millions of people and has restructured the way we interact with the world around us, including making it unsafe to go out in public and even be around loved ones. Los Angeles County has taken the COVID-19 threat seriously and began imposing restrictions on movement and public gatherings in the second week of March. View COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County by neighborhood, race/ethnicity, and over time.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and other districts across the county have chosen to follow state guidelines and close their doors in the hopes of protecting children and their families from the virus’ spread. LAUSD schools initially announced a two-week closure starting March 13 but on March 23, LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner announced schools would be closed until at least May 15. Parents, community members and district employees have all expressed concern for how children will receive the same level of education on their own at home when not all students will have the same access to resources.

The Homework Gap

One way that differing access to resources shows up in education is through what is known as the “homework gap.” The homework gap refers to the unequal access students have to the technological resources necessary to complete homework. Students without access to a computer or the internet, especially in high school when assignments like research papers necessitate the use of such technology, do not have the same ability to complete homework that requires those resources. These students miss out on valuable learning time, which is partially responsible for the gap we see in performance between these students and their more well-resourced counterparts. LAUSD estimates that 25% of their students lack access to the internet.

The reasons for this lack of access largely vary by where a student lives. Research shows that in rural areas, the reason is a lack of infrastructure to provide these technologies. In urban areas, the cost is a bigger reason. According to a Pew Research analysis of 2015 American Community Survey Data, 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have access to high-speed internet and the majority of those households are low income. The same survey reported that one-in-three households with children ages 6 to 17 making below $30,000 annually do not have internet access, compared with just 6% of similar households earning $75,000 or more annually. Black teens are also especially impacted by the lack of access, with one-in-four Black teens reporting they sometimes have difficulty completing assignments due to a lack of access to technology. This unequal access contributes to the historic opportunity gap between wealthier whiter students and low-income students and students of color.

A young student wearing headphones and studying on a laptop.

The Homework Gap & COVID-19

With COVID-19 shutting schools for nearly two months, this unequal access to technology has become a high priority for school districts and community members around the country. Most schools have been forced to transition to online distance learning, which requires access to an internet connection and a computer. Now, the homework gap will be affecting much more than homework. Students without access to the internet or a computer will also miss out on in-class lesson time if they are unable to access virtual classrooms or pre-recorded lessons. With public libraries also closed, there are not many options for students to access these resources for free.

Community and Internet Access in Los Angeles

Most students living in L.A. County, unlike students living in more rural areas, have access to the infrastructure necessary to obtain technological resources. However, there are still neighborhoods where as many as 30% of households do not have an internet connection. Across the county an average of 18% of households lack internet access and 10% lack home computers.

Hover over the neighborhoods below to see the rate of households without computer access. Click on the second header to view the map of households without internet access.


If students do not have internet or a computer at home, they may have a smartphone that will enable them to access their learning content. However, research shows that smartphone-only users can run into many issues, including caps on the amount of data they can access and difficulty reading content when it that was not designed for use on a smartphone.

Low-income families of color in L.A. County who are already negatively impacted by the unequal educational and employment opportunities made available to them are the communities most affected by this lack of technological resources. As a report by the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity describes, according to 2018 ACS data of L.A. County, 36% of Latino students, 36% of Native American students, and 31% of Black students lack access to high-speed internet and a computer at home, compared with only 11% of white students.

Hover over the circles on the chart below (or access the chart here) to see the rate of households without internet access, rate of Black or Latinx residents, and households. 


Efforts to Equalize Access to Distance Learning

LAUSD has partnered with Southern California’s flagship PBS organizations, KCET and PBS SoCal, to bring educational programming to students across the county through several different platforms. They have created newly revised daytime television programming schedules, with different hours and channels reserved for different age groups, and through smartphones and tablets on PBS’ app, as well as online at athomelearning.org.

According to KCET and PBS SoCal, the new daytime television programming schedules aligned to state curriculum standards are now being watched by approximately 200,000 people daily. KCET and KQED have also partnered to provide daily online training sessions through PBS LearningMedia to over 5,000 teachers so that they can utilize all resources the site offers in their virtual classrooms. 

The Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), has also taken extraordinary steps to ensure continuity in coursework for their 230,000 students, over half of whom are low-income students. LACCD has moved 8,000 classes online, and to ensure that all students can access classroom content, the district has distributed 8,000 laptops to their students, completely free of charge. The district is working to rapidly expand these efforts, as there are at least another 7,000 LACCD students who still need laptops to access their courses. The vast majority of LACCD’s student population is comprised of first-generation college students from lower-income backgrounds. Many students, who identify as foster youth, LGBTQ+, veterans, justice-involved, DACA, or undocumented, are disproportionately affected by the digital divide.

To support these efforts, several internet and telephone providers are also taking steps to help bridge the digital divide and continue providing services to students and families who have been financially burdened by COVID-19 and are unable to continue paying their bills. Verizon is working on bringing personal hotspots and laptops to students who need them around the county. Additionally, Comcast is offering 60 days of free access to personal hotspots, even to non-subscribers, and providing 60 days of free internet access to new subscribers. AT&T will waive monthly fees and late fees for affected consumers and similarly provide free public access to hotspots. Verizon is waiving late fees and will not be suspending unpaid accounts, and T-Mobile will give unlimited data to customers for 60 days. 

Organizations across the county have been producing resource pages to direct students and families to free learning opportunities. First 5 LA provided links divided by age group to hundreds of free online learning opportunities for students. L.A. County’s Department of Cultural Affairs has published a list of free art lesson resources to do with students at home. Los Angeles Public Libraries are making librarians available to take appointments over the phone or online during their shutdown and have an application that can be downloaded on your phone to check books out for free. They are also waiving all late fees during the closure. 

Young student being tutored by an adult. | iStock

As COVID-19 continues to force school closures for the foreseeable future, districts across the state and country are working to keep students learning at home. Exacerbating the issue is the number of highly vulnerable households without access to a computer or the internet. LAUSD’s partnerships with KCET and Verizon aim to make learning and technology accessible to every family. LACCD’s laptop distribution program is helping thousands of community college learners continue to access critical coursework to complete their education. Other organizations across the county and dozens of companies are creating online content and offering free services to families to help ensure students can have access to distance learning opportunities. 

Sources

Anderson, M., Perrin, A. (October 26, 2018). Nearly one-in-five teens can't always finish their homework because of the digital divide. Pew Research Center.

Anderson, M., Horrigan, J. (October 3, 2018). Smartphones help those without broadband get online, but don't necessarily bridge the digital divide. Pew Research Center. 

Bomey, N. (March 16, 2020). How utility, phone and internet companies are giving consumers a break during coronavirus pandemic. USA Today. 

Grondorf, K. (March 23, 2020). Verizon to provide unlimited internet to LAUSD students without access. Verizon.

KCET. (2020). At-Home Learning Press Materials.

Los Angeles Unified School District. (2020). Latest News. https://achieve.lausd.net/latestnews
Pastor, M., Scoggins, J. (March 23, 2020). COVID-19 and the Crisis: Vulnerabilities in Los Angeles. Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

Poon, L. (March 20, 2020). Coronavirus exposes how bad America's homework gap really is. Citylab.

Wong, A. (October 30, 2018). Why millions of teens can't finish their homework. The Atlantic.

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