For too long, the digital divide has put far too many students at an unfair disadvantage, and it's about time to seriously address that gap, as seen on this keyboard with a digital divide key

The U.S. needs billions to close the digital divide

For too long, the digital divide has put far too many students at an unfair disadvantage, and it's about time to seriously address that gap

As Americans close out one year of pandemic-related school disruption and head into a second, the digital divide remains a daunting challenge for K-12 public school systems in most states.

Although progress to bridge the divide has been significant, as many as 12 million K-12 students remained digitally underserved just before 2021, according to a report by Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and the Southern Education Foundation.

The report, titled Looking Back, Looking Forward: What It Will Take to Permanently Close the K-12 Digital Divide, provides a granular understanding of the digital divide’s impact on students, and offers a set of recommendations at the federal, state, and local levels to permanently close the digital divide.

The report finds that since March 2020, programs to enable distance learning during the pandemic reduced the number of students without access to broadband service by 20 to 40 percent and reduced the number of students without access to an e-learning device by 40 to 60 percent. The analysis also finds that more than 75 percent of these efforts will expire in the next one to three years, leaving temporarily connected students once again digitally underserved.

Leadership required to permanently close the gap

“States and school districts have stepped up to tackle the homework gap during the pandemic. And while some support has flowed to these efforts from the Federal Government, it has been inconsistent and remains insufficient,” says James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “There remains a significant need to support states and schools that have stood up programs to close the homework gap during the pandemic, and to help them close the divide for good. It is incumbent on the Federal Government and state governments to not only prevent these efforts from stalling, but enhance them, ensuring access to broadband service and devices, and to deploy future-proof broadband infrastructure that can meet the needs of students right now, and going forward.”

“Fundamentally, this is a matter of equity that requires leadership at all levels—from the federal government to local communities,” says Raymond C. Pierce, president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. “Some of the most successful efforts to bridge this divide have involved school districts working in partnership with local organizations and community advocates to meet families where they are, and to ensure access to the internet and the other technology students need to learn remotely.”

As students return to the classroom–and vaccines bring hope for a post-pandemic future–the momentum to eliminate the digital divide must continue to drive the strong and equitable economic growth necessary to advance society as a whole.

“This is not a short-term problem. The digital divide predated COVID-19 and will persist beyond it without further action,” says Lane McBride, a BCG managing director and partner leading the firm’s Education, Employment, and Welfare Engagement sector within the Public Sector practice in North America, and a co-author of the report. “We need leaders in government, corporations, philanthropies, and the education sector to seize the moment and work together on practical and lasting solutions.”

Key findings

  1. Closing the digital divide is a fundamental equity issue, essential to the future of our economy and society.
  2. Long-term solutions must address the needs of 15 to 16 million K-12 students who were affected by the divide when the pandemic began.
  3. State and district efforts have been significant but insufficient; up to 12 million K-12 students remained under-connected going into 2021.
  4. Solutions have largely been temporary measures; more than 75 percent of these efforts will expire in the next one to three years.
  5. Long-term solutions must address all three root causes of the divide: lack of available broadband, lack of affordability, and non-technical, non-financial barriers to adoption such as lack of digital skills or distrust of providers.
  6. Closing the divide requires $6 to $11 billion for the first year, and $4 to $8 billion annually thereafter to address affordability and adoption gaps, as well as additional investment in universal broadband infrastructure.
  7. Federal and state policy should enable expanded investment in broadband infrastructure, sustained federal funding ensuring affordable options, bulk procurement and transparent pricing, community-based support for digital inclusion, and ongoing measurement.
  8. Cross-sector partnerships among public, private and social sectors are essential to close the digital divide–and keep it closed.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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