March/April 2021

Leadership Letter: Global Pandemic Shines the Light on the Digital Divide

 By Tom Bertrand
The sudden disruption of in-person learning last March forced districts to quickly transi­tion to remote learning. As I look back nearly a year later, the work of school districts to adapt to this massive change has been nothing short of remarkable. Yet, the tran­sition to hybrid and fully remote learning clearly underscored the myriad of challenges districts faced in serving students and families. None loomed as large as the lack of access to the devices and infra­structure necessary to provide and support equal access to educational opportunities in the remote learn­ing environment.
The Illinois Broadband Advi­sory Committee Council exam­ined the critical issues related to broadband access and affordability. The findings reflected the digital divide in Illinois. A 2019 Amer­ican Community Survey (ACS) revealed that over 285,000 Illinois households with school-aged children lack at-home wireline broadband service. The same sur­vey results indicated that over 1.1 million Illinois households lacked at-home access to a desktop or laptop computer.
More recent data shows some progress toward closing the digi­tal divide in Illinois. In a March 2020 ISBE survey, 598 responding districts indicated that they had sufficient devices to provide 51% of students with an instruction­al device for at-home use. In a similar survey in the fall of 2020, 686 districts reported providing 88% of students with a device. An influx of federal funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund allowed districts to acquire thousands of devices and to address home connectivity issues.
Despite these gains, the same fall survey underscored the ongo­ing challenges facing school dis­tricts. Almost all, 97%, of districts reported one or more barriers to home connectivity for the students they serve. The biggest obstacle to ensuring home connectivity for students involves the ongoing cost of monthly internet service. Limitations of bandwidth and the availability of broadband internet service also remain significant challenges to districts.
The 2019 launch of Connect Illinois, a statewide initiative to expand broadband access across the entire state, represented a sub­stantial investment in the effort to close the digital divide. Given the ongoing pandemic and the real­ity of a continued reliance upon some form of remote learning, closing this divide is essential if we intend to provide equal access to educational opportunities and high-quality instruction for every child in Illinois.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.