The digital divide - what it is and how it's affecting families in the COVID-era

In the midst of COVID-19, people across the country have been forced to pivot to virtual work and school settings. As the reliance on Internet access and technology grows, the digital divide has become a nationwide issue and has shown a light on an ever-present problem in North Carolina.

Posted Updated
Abbey Slattery
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.

For many of us, reliable Internet access is hardly given a second thought. In the midst of the COVID-era however — when work, school and life in general have had to shift almost entirely into the online world — the divide between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not has never been felt more deeply.

The digital divide refers to the chasm between those who have Internet access, devices, and the ability to use them and those who do not.

At the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University, the digital divide isn't a new concept. It has long been an issue in rural communities with less access to connectivity — but with current remote conditions now affecting school and work in both rural and urban areas, there's been an immediate need for a widespread solution.

"The digital divide got to me when I realized that children in my community wouldn't be able to do their homework. When COVID-19 started, there was a moment where officials were considering moving towards just a digital textbook. However, the number of people in my community that didn't have Internet was frustrating — it was going to leave those children without an opportunity, those in cycles of poverty, to struggle that much more to do what they're required to do," said Sara Nichols, regional planner at Land of Sky Regional Council, a planning and development organization that provides technical aid to local governments. "In the COVID environment, we're now living in that reality for everyone and not just for those in rural communities. We've had a critical mass of people who are focusing on this issue of access, because all of the sudden, a lot of the places that people went to connect aren't open for them anymore."

Nichols is right — with regular WiFi spots like coffee shops and libraries currently closed or limiting hours and space, people without reliable access to the Internet are left with few options. Additionally, with many individuals losing their jobs or working on reduced hours, monthly Internet bills might be first on the chopping block when it comes to cutting costs.

Even for those with regular access, an increased amount of online traffic has made a reliable connection tougher to maintain.

"What I started hearing was that people who never had problems with their Internet before were suddenly struggling or having outages. It happened to me, actually. I have great Internet at my house and I was asked to speak on a webinar about public WiFi, and I got kicked off — the irony of that. That's how real it is for kids doing homework every day and for people who are trying to run their businesses online," said Nichols. "It is not effective and often an embarrassing thing to have to deal with, and the answer is really connectivity in the home. But in the interim, since that's such an expensive, grandiose venture to do across the country for rural areas, there's a real role for public WiFi and how it plays into providing certain amounts of opportunity for folks."

Public WiFi does help bridge the digital divide in a major way, allowing communities to ensure equal access to online resources. But again, many locations that offer this resource are closed or limiting operations.

Without a high-speed, affordable connection, both work and school can suffer, and the effects are being felt firsthand in the Triangle area.

"Digital equity is a problem that's been with us for a long time, but in March, it became a crisis — we called it the homework gap in education — because this digital divide really had its biggest impact on students' ability to do work at home and complete assignments the teacher sent them at home," said Laura Fogle, Assistant Director of the Media and Education Technology Resource Center at North Carolina State University and one of the founders of the digital equity collaborative Digital Durham. "Students who did not have access to digital resources were cut off, and those anchor institutions, like the library, the community college, the university and the public schools, were cut off, too. Families who typically would have been able to go to the library and check out a hotspot suddenly had no options."

At Digital Durham, a team made up of nine organizations that collaborate on best practices, gather data and increase awareness of pending legislation related to digital equity, Fogle and her colleagues are spreading awareness and brainstorming ways to address the growing digital divide.

One problem at the forefront of their minds and another culprit in the digital divide is lack of adequate devices for online access. For families with multiple school children or more than one parent working remotely, a single computer isn't enough to keep up with demand.

At Durham Public Schools, a member of the Digital Durham collaborative, the system has been working with the 1Million Project grant to put devices with built-in WiFi into the hands of students. Another Digital Durham member, Kramden Institute, takes donated computers, rebuilds them, and then donates them or sells them at a reduced cost.

Normally, the Kramden Institute has a process for awarding free computers to the K-12 students that involves a recommendation from a teacher, but when COVID-19 hit, they recognized the urgency of the problem and waived the teacher recommendation. Six hours after posting about the change on social media, they had over 400 appointments from parents who were desperate to get devices for their kids.

And the help is much-needed — it's estimated that around half a million North Carolina students suffered from the homework gap, as they were unable to complete schoolwork due to lack of Internet access or lack of available devices. As the next school year is around the corner and the fall semester still looks unpredictable, teachers are wondering how they can use issues encountered in the spring semester to provide a smoother, more inclusive online experience moving forward.

"A sixth grade teacher in Durham Schools wrote us a letter about her experience, and this was in late March. She said she had 94 students during this school year that just ended and she sent out a communication to them. She heard back from 42 out of 94 students — that's less than half," said Fogle. "Before schools went remote, she had students asking her, 'Well, how do I get Google Docs on my phone?' 'How can I do Google Classroom on my phone?' The number-one concern that her students voiced to her was their access to the Internet or a computer when they went home."

Luckily, actions have been taken since the school year concluded. Just last month, the school board in Durham voted to put in place a one-to-one initiative where every student will be able to take home a school-issued device. While this initiative had been on the docket for the school system for a while, the immediate need pushed their timeline considerably ahead.

While some members of the collaborative are well on their way to figuring out how to lend a hand in these times, others are struggling with how they can help bridge the divide when the services they used to offer are no longer an option.

"Many members of the Durham Digital collaborative, under normal circumstances, are trying to help people get access to digital resources, but those organizations have been impacted, too. For example, the Durham Literacy Center provides literacy training, but they can't have their in-person classes right now — they can only meet with their clients in online classes," said Fogle. "You can imagine the challenge of saying, 'Okay, you were at a beginning level in your understanding of how all of these tools work, and now I'm going to try to talk you through it all remotely and over the phone — where I can't see the screen you're looking at, and you can't see the screen that I'm looking at.'"

As COVID-19 continues to push back the date of reopenings across the state, organizations like the Durham Literacy Center are finding ways to pivot or enhance what they are able to do in order to diminish the digital divide — but the effects may still be felt for months to come.

While there may not yet be an end in sight for remote work and schooling, Nichols has high hopes for a silver lining.

"I have never been more optimistic about the country's interest in moving the needle forward for these resources. For so long, the issue was part of a rural-urban divide but in the last few months, we're having a lot of civil rights conversations and equity conversations, and this was another conversation that was had," said Nichols. "I'm optimistic that we might see some changes in policy that help bridge some of those gaps, and I also think that there's going to be more money to help companies grow rural broadband and end broadband issues."

This article was written for our sponsor, Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.