Washington, D.C. — As our schools manage new COVID-19 outbreaks, students, administrators, and teachers must prepare for the possibility of more remote learning — all while working to make up the months of lessons lost last year. Providing effective, real-time lessons online is an enormous, but worthwhile, challenge that could have significant long-term benefits.
In our issue brief on the “Homework Gap”, Business Forward shows how the switch to virtual learning during COVID-19 highlighted the importance of affordable laptops, digital literacy, teacher training, online curricula, and broadband access. The gap between those with access to digital resources and those without existed far before COVID-19 forced students online, and will continue to exist when students go back to in-person classes full-time. “Even if students remain in-person, they still need digital access to complete their homework, collaborate with classmates, and learn the 21st century digital skills necessary for competing in today’s workforce,” said Jim Doyle, president of Business Forward.
Issues of accessibility continue to be worse for some subgroups of students: Black and Hispanic students are less likely to have access to the internet and computers, and one in three low-income households with children lack access to high-speed broadband compared with one in fifteen higher-income households.
“We need to stop seeing this as a pandemic problem and see it as an opportunity to help students from low-income families obtain help with lessons and homework that students from wealthy families take for granted,” explained Doyle. “These investments could level the playing field, train more workers for high-paying jobs, and grow our economy.”
To eliminate the homework gap, policymakers must work with school districts, local service organizations, and business leaders to address each of these needs simultaneously and comprehensively. “Investing $65 billion in broadband infrastructure is a critical first step in eliminating the homework gap, but we risk wasting this money if we don’t address other causes of the problem,” explained Doyle. “The districts that performed best last year helped families sign-up for discounted broadband service, provided low-cost computers to students, and worked with organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs to help families use them.”
Throughout the pandemic, Congress has funded efforts to help students learn online. The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) provides $50/month broadband subsidies and a one-time $100 credit for technology to qualifying low-income households. Since its rollout, the program has benefitted nearly 5 million households. The Senate’s latest effort, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, would extend the benefit but lower the subsidy to $30/month. “While states and the federal government have funded various programs to close the digital divide, we still need a holistic and long-term solution to expand digital inclusion,” said Doyle. “This means focusing on digital literacy programs and technology gaps in addition to affordable broadband.”
“Investments in digital infrastructure will have high upfront costs. But the cost of doing nothing is far larger,” said Doyle. A less skilled workforce is a less productive workforce. According to one estimate, the cost in future wages of losing four months of schooling is $2.5 trillion. “These investments will benefit a whole generation entering an increasingly digital workforce.”
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The Business Forward Foundation is an independent research and education organization that takes a business-minded look at policy issues affecting America’s economic competitiveness. Our work combines insights and advice from business leaders across the country with rigorous policy analysis. Through white papers, issue briefs, conference calls, and other events, we educate policy makers and the public about climate change, immigration reform, infrastructure investment, the future of work, and other critical issues.