Why We Must Expand the Definition of K-12 to Include the Internet and Computer for Every Child

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Before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down, Ashante Aponte, a bright 13-year-old from Washington, D.C., had a predictable after-school routine. Three times a week around 3:30 p.m., her mother Frances picked her up from school, along with her 12-year old brother Francisco, and made a swift path to the local public library.

Their mission, though, was not so much to find a great book to read; it was to use the library’s computer and the Internet. Whether for a group project, a science project, book summary, or extra math practice — Ashante did the work at the library because, like nine million other K-12 students in the United States, she had no computer or Internet at home.

By some measures, Ashante and her family were fortunate. Their public library always seemed to have enough computers, and Ashante felt safe with her mother at her side. But many other students have no public library close to their homes, or they have one but the computers are scarce, or the hours inconvenient, or it’s simply not safe. Of course, now, the libraries, and other locations with access to Wi-Fi are closed.

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the problems of the digitally disconnected student like nothing else. With the closing of some 118,000 public and private schools across the country — most through the end of the academic year and probably in the fall — more than 55 million K-12 students are now relying on some form of online distance learning. And many — especially the poor, African American, Latino, rural and native american children — are suffering academically because of access issues that too long have gone ignored.

We must use this public health crisis moment to write new rules that guarantee every K-12 student in America access to the Internet and a computer at home. Why? Let’s start with what we know.

Approximately 30 percent of Americans, including almost 40 percent of rural residents, report not having access to broadband in their homes, according to the 2019 Pew Research Report.

Nearly 40 percent of children from families with incomes below $30,000 annually do not have high-speed Internet in their homes. And they need it — to connect with teachers, to master digital platforms, or maybe to use the thousands of online educational resources.

At the very least they need to be able to do their homework.

Yet, almost one in five teens report they often or sometimes cannot complete homework because they do not have the internet or computer at home. For African American and Latino teens, the numbers are even worse.

For poor students who do manage to get their homework done, they must manage under extremely tenuous circumstances. Nearly half report using their cell phones, and nearly 20 percent report using public Wi-Fi. These are the children like Ashante who, if lucky, can use the public library. But many others turn to fast-food restaurants, or parking lots outside of school or government buildings, often at night and on weekends, to write research papers, study, or connect with classmates or teachers.

This should not surprise us. Rather it should make us mad enough to take action.

As far back as 2009 we knew that 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires the Internet. In 2016, almost 80 percent of high school students and almost 70 percent of middle school students reported needing the Internet daily or weekly for homework. This trend is not reversing.

Fast forward to 2020. Officials knew that when schools closed because of the pandemic, poor children of all races, African American, Latino, rural and native American children, were the ones most likely to not have a computer or internet at home.

These disparities prompted the Philadelphia school system, to announce at the start of the pandemic that it would not implement any online distance learning because it would not be fair to the thousands of digitally disconnected students. Roughly 40 percent of its students in grades 3–12 did not have access, according to a 2019 survey.

Philadelphia ultimately changed course, and like almost every other school district in the country, scrambled to get the Internet and a device to as many students as possible who needed it.

But many, like Francisco, Ashante’s brother, ended up with no technology, or they were forced to use cell phones to connect to school.

This was a hardship, to say the least. For 2½ months, Ashante and Francisco sat at their kitchen table, and tried to put as much distance as possible between each other as they did their four hours of online learning each day.

Ashante used a computer given to her by her school. Latin American Youth Center (LAYC), a local community organization, helped the family sign up for discounted Internet access through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. Francisco, who has autism, had to make do with his mother’s cell phone.

It is hard to fully describe what it is like for a child with autism to use a six-inch cell phone, four hours a day to connect with his teacher and classmates.

While the work of organizations like LAYC is laudable, as are the tireless efforts of school districts around the country, the critical work of getting technology into the hands of students cannot be left to the goodwill of a patchwork of community organizations or individual schools and districts.

This should be mandated national policy.

Think about it: In 1647 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed its first compulsory education laws, the people who got a chance to take advantage were free, white, male, and puritan. But national values and economic interests ultimately led to the inclusion of everybody — women, ethnic minorities, the poor.

We can evolve the same way today. But we do not have centuries or even decades to wait.

Today we fund K-12 education through a combination of federal, state and local dollars to ensure that every child has access to a teacher and a school. We must, right now, require that a K-12 education also include the Internet and a computer.

It must be compulsory. It must be available to all children without regard to a family’s ability to pay or belief in its worth.

The moment is here.

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