The digital divide refers to the gap between families that have quality computer hardware and high-speed internet –and those that don’t. The Newark Trust for Education has long been an advocate of digital equity for all students. Our Executive Director Ronald Chaluisán recently spoke with KQ Education Group about the urgent need to ensure that all learners have access to a computer and high-speed internet service, stating that these items are not luxuries – they are necessities. In the interview he says, “one lesson of remote learning is that every student needs a computer and internet access at home.”

Too many youth in Newark, our state, and across the nation lack affordable high-speed internet and efficient laptop computers so learners can keep up – and excel. This puts them at a major disadvantage not only in their educational experience, but as they move into the job force. Data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that an estimated 14.5 million Americans lack home broadband access. In this data are the inequities that exist, particularly due to the cost of broadband coverage. It’s not that communities don’t have the infrastructure; rather, people simply cannot afford it, and Newark exemplifies this.

While the digital divide has always existed, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue more than ever before, placing digital equity prominently in the minds of school systems, educators, caregivers, and policymakers. Learners need high speed internet access – and tech – to complete homework assignments, virtual coursework, and tutoring and get the instruction they need during future school closures.

Smartphones and other technology have become fundamental to navigating everyday life and most rely on it daily to communicate, learn, play, and engage. We should capitalize on this to promote the wealth of information, knowledge, and resources available to them, so they maximize learning inside and outside of the classroom.

A lack of internet access directly impacts students’ ability to meet their academic goals and expectations. According to KQ Education, “As recently as this spring, about a quarter of teenagers living in very low-income households said they sometimes cannot complete their homework because they do not have reliable computer or internet access.” Without reliable internet access, students are unfairly left behind.

Smartphones are useful tools for connectivity but provide limited functionality for most interactive learning platforms and tools. It is important that students have access to computers that will allow them to capitalize on the educational tools available including research, tutoring, interactive learning games, and class assignments. Recent research from the National Center for Education Statistics provides valuable insights on the digital divide, detailing that although online access is becoming more universal, not all families access the Web the same way. According to their data, 95 percent of all 3-18-year-olds had access in 2019, but this data “masks further inequities in mode of access, which have implications for whether/how the internet can be used as an educational tool.”

To help address the issue, we must urge elected officials at the local, county, state, and federal levels to invest in our communities, in our people. Schools can advocate for learners by doing all they can to improve access to online learning and technology that helps foster favorable educational outcomes. We must also partner with large corporations and foundations that want to protect our collective future interests. We need future generations to be higher ed, technical training, and workforce ready. Therefore, we must invest now and bridge the tech chasm that impacts human lives and the health of our economy. We must ensure digital equity for all.