Eliminate Pennsylvania’s ‘digital divide’
BY CAROL L. HODES AND CINDY HALL
While many Pennsylvanians have comfortable access to computers and internet connectivity, others have a very different reality. The great digital divide looms ominously over the commonwealth and the nation, defining the haves and have-nots, ensuring a lack of educational equity for our youth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of online access to just about every facet of everyday life. In fact, the majority of us identified internet access as essential during quarantine, according to the Pew Research Center. Nowhere has this hit closer to home than with the education of our children.
Some of Pennsylvania’s most financially deprived school districts and those located in rural areas of the commonwealth were dramatically impacted by pupils’ inability to connect online. With discrepancies in infrastructure, pricing and download speeds, many of the regions in our state lack an easy internet connection. As a result, emergency measures this spring required school districts to set up temporary hot spots to alleviate connectivity issues. Unfortunately, internet providers were not quick to respond with free or low-cost internet access to families with school-age children, rendering emergency work by some school districts almost in vain.
While the ability to connect is one dimension of the problem, learner characteristics and availability of online resources compound the issue. A recent report titled “Considerations for Reopening Pennsylvania Schools” found online classes less effective than in-person classes for most students, with even greater loss of learning for African American and Hispanic students. Moreover, all students positively benefit from some degree of real-time instruction and interaction with the teacher; this is particularly true for students from low-income households. In addition, the report notes that student engagement is an important component of virtual learning.
With the high probability of school closures during the 2020-21 school year, teachers are spending their summer preparing to lead virtual classrooms. All districts received Federal CARES Act funds. These dollars can be used for teachers’ professional development as they prepare themselves to deliver remote learning.
If, and when, the next school shut down occurs, Pennsylvania must advocate for and support our teachers so they can focus on educating their students rather than struggling with technology and connectivity issues. Let’s put an end to the commonwealth’s digital divide.
Carol L. Hodes is the AAUW State College education sub-committee chair and Cindy Hall is the AAUW co-president.