According to Census Bureau data, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 40% of PK–12 households in California lacked full digital access. This meant that many students did not have reliable access to high-speed internet and a connected device. However, through efforts to connect students for remote learning, this shortfall decreased to 29% spring 2021. Despite this progress, full digital access rates remained lower for Black and Latino households, as well as for households headed individuals without a college degree or with incomes below $50,000 per year.
To address this issue, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 introduced the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which allocated approximately $6.8 billion for schools and libraries to narrow the digital divide. These funds provided around 13 million devices and 8 million broadband connections to about 18 million students nationwide during the pandemic. In California, educational entities have requested nearly $1.4 billion in ECF funds, accounting for approximately 15% of the total funds applied for nationwide.
The implementation of the ECF has led to tangible improvements in narrowing the digital divide for students. With access to devices and internet connectivity, students were able to attend remote classes, complete their homework, and utilize online learning resources. Data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) shows that during the first year of the program, 65% of applications came from districts in California, with an additional 24% coming from individual schools, mostly charters.
When analyzing the districts that applied for ECF assistance, it is evident that they represent a fair representation of students across California. These districts enroll 69% of the state’s students and largely reflect the demographics of the student population. Additionally, districts with higher concentrations of historically underserved students, such as English Learners (ELs), Black and Latino students, and students from low-income households, have submitted more applications for ECF assistance.
However, it is important to note that ECF funding is unable to meet all students’ digital needs. Districts were asked to report the number of students with unmet connectivity or device needs in their applications, and their future plans for addressing these needs with ECF funding. On average, these plans aimed to meet between 70% and 74% of the stated need. Despite these efforts, between 9% and 16% of students in districts with high concentrations of ELs, Black and Latino students, and students from low-income families were still projected to lack access after ECF measures. The figures were slightly lower, between 9% and 11%, for the remaining districts.
While progress has been made in narrowing the digital divide for students in California through initiatives like the ECF, there is still much work to be done. As of 2021, 15% of households across the state lack reliable internet access, and 10% lack a suitable device for digital tasks. Although in-person instruction has resumed, digital access at home remains essential for students to complete assignments, review course materials, and access resources.
Without the aid provided the ECF and other programs designed to mitigate the digital divide, such as the Affordable Connectivity Program, the learning setback experienced students during the pandemic may have been even worse. Continued efforts are needed to ensure that all students have equitable access to digital tools and resources, allowing them to thrive in an increasingly digital world.
– Census Bureau data
– Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data
Note: The original source article has not been provided, so this reimagined article is based solely on the main points given.