Bridging the Digital Divide for Students and Families

Girl uses tablet in library

In the modern digital age, it can be easy to assume that everyone has access to the internet. However, a startling disparity exists between those who are, and are not ‘connected.’ This digital divide affects individuals in underserved communities and significantly impacts students—limiting their potential and opportunities to thrive and develop. The specific challenges of trying to keep up with a college prep curriculum, apply to colleges, and hold down a job—without having internet access at home at home—come to life in an interview with Destinyjoy Balgobin, a 19-year-old high school graduate growing up in East Harlem.

The Disparity in Digital Access

Recent studies reveal the shocking reality of the current divide. A report highlighted that while 92% of jobs require digital skills, one-third of workers lack the foundational digital abilities needed to thrive in today’s job market. Despite the assumption that most households have access to the internet, only 73% of them actually do. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when education largely shifted online, this gap has only grown. Distressingly, only 57% of households with incomes below $30,000 have broadband access.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the digital divide and highlighted the urgent need for action, as millions of students faced barriers to access and complete their assignments, communicate with their teachers and peers, and access educational resources. A study by Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group estimated that 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the U.S. lacked adequate internet or devices for online learning in 2020.

In our region, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that more than 276,000 locations in Pennsylvania lack broadband access, and another 52,000 locations have insufficient broadband service. This means that many students, families, teachers, and businesses in the state are unable to participate fully in online learning, telehealth, e-commerce, remote work, and civic engagement..

To bridge the digital divide in education and our communities across Pennsylvania, we need to invest in broadband infrastructure, affordability, adoption, and digital literacy. Fortunately, there are several initiatives underway at the federal, state, and local levels to address these challenges.

New Funding Initiatives to Build the Bridge

Realizing the gravity of the situation, U.S. lawmakers passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal in 2021—committing $65 billion to ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet through a historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment.

One of the most significant sources of funding for broadband expansion is the Broadband Equity Access Deployment (BEAD) program, which will provide $10 billion to states, territories, and tribal governments to support broadband infrastructure projects that target unserved or underserved areas. Pennsylvania is set to receive $1.16 billion from this program, which will be administered by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA). Earlier this month, the PBDA announced the approval of its five-year action plan to expand internet access and deploy support programs across the commonwealth.

Another important initiative is the Internet for All program, which was launched by President Biden in July 2021. The program aims to make broadband more affordable and accessible for low-income Americans by expanding the eligibility and benefits of the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides a monthly subsidy for broadband or phone service. The Internet for All program will also provide $100 million in planning grants to states and local governements to develop strategies for increasing broadband adoption and digital inclusion.

Pennsylvania has received more than $6.6 million from the Internet for All planning grants, which will be used to support community-based organizations that provide digital literacy training, device distribution, technical assistance, and outreach to underserved populations. Some of the recipients of these grants include libraries, schools, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and local governments.

These initiatives are examples of how we can work together to bridge the digital divide in education and our communities across the country. By expanding broadband access and adoption, we can ensure that everyone—regardless of their economic status or where they live—has equal opportunity to learn, work, communicate, and thrive in the digital age.

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