May 19, 2020
MADISON – Before the coronavirus pandemic upended education, more than 82,000 children across Wisconsin — disproportionately low-income students of color — lacked internet access at home, according to a Wisconsin Policy Forum analysis of the state’s digital divide.
Now, as the vast majority of Wisconsin schools rely on virtual learning as the chief method of instruction, the digital divide may worsen still because of increasing demand for internet and devices, as entire families may be working or completing schoolwork at home at the same time, and more families may struggle to afford internet because of the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“What this illustrates is the best possible scenario,” said Betsy Mueller, a Wisconsin Policy Forum researcher.
While it’s difficult to predict the impact of this year’s school shutdowns on education, it’s clear the new landscape is going to be most difficult for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English language learners, Wisconsin Policy Forum researcher Ari Brown said.
Brown said the divide threatens to inflame already-existing racial and economic academic achievement gaps.
“So much of this is what we’re not doing — all the standardized tests are canceled, grades are not normal,” Brown said. “So much isn’t normal, so it’s really hard to see what the impacts will be, but absolutely you’re going to see a lot of these achievement gaps start to widen.”
Although most Wisconsin households have reliable internet access, nearly 10% of Wisconsin school districts said fewer than half of their students have adequate internet access, according to 2019 survey data from the state Department of Public Instruction. And, one in three districts reported at least a quarter of their students didn’t have enough access to complete homework assignments.
The problem is particularly acute in smaller school districts that serve fewer than 500 students.
Nearly half of those districts reported less than three-fourths of their students had adequate internet access to complete homework. By comparison, 80% of districts with an enrollment over 2,000 reported meeting that threshold.
Many factors affect students’ access to reliable, high-speed internet, according to the analysis.
Just over 45% of districts cited cost as the reason and 33% said at least half of their students lacked access because high-speed internet is not available where students live.
A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that while many rural areas have significant numbers of residents under age 18 who lack internet access, the problem also stretches to larger cities and their suburbs.
Several of Wisconsin’s largest cities exceeded Wisconsin’s average of 6.4% of children without access, according to the analysis. In Milwaukee, for example, about 13% of children — more than double the state average — lack internet. In the nearby Racine, nearly 10% of residents age 18 and younger are without internet.
The problem extends to northeastern Wisconsin, too, affecting nearly 8% of children in Green Bay, nearly 7% in Appleton and 6% in Oshkosh.
“It’s not just something that’s an issue in urban areas or rural areas,” Mueller said, calling the divide widespread and pervasive. “I think it’s really important to see that this is an issue that affects all of Wisconsin.”
The census data also reveals a distinct racial divide. Across the state, nearly 14% of black residents and 11% of Hispanic residents lack broadband access, in comparison to just 6% of white residents, who already make up a much larger portion of Wisconsin’s population.
Internet isn’t the only barrier that Wisconsin students and schools face as they make a seismic shift to online learning: According to the DPI survey, just over 15% of districts report they aren’t able to provide each student with a portable device like a laptop or tablet.
Statewide, nearly 4% of children live in households with no computer, tablet or smartphone. And a racial divide, again, is evident. While just 8% of white residents lack a computer, that rate is nearly doubled for black and Hispanic residents with 13% and 8%, respectively.
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