As many of the nation’s pupils close in on a year of virtual remote learning, public policy analysts are highlighting the scope of the digital divide and ways in which policymakers can close it.

Boston Consulting Group, the education nonprofit Common Sense Media and the Southern Education Foundation released a detailed report last month titled “Looking Back, Looking Forward: What it will take to permanently close the K-12 digital divide” to examine the magnitude of the divide and potential solutions moving forward.

While policymakers have made efforts to expand access to computers and broadband since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, analysts say up to 12 million K-12 students remain underserved.

Titilayo Tinubu Ali, senior director of research and policy at the Southern Education Foundation, said the report showed that digital inequity is most pronounced in the southern states and rural areas. The report noted the divide has disproportionately affected rural states and 40 to 50 percent of students in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi since the start of the public health crisis.

“Sometimes in conversations about education equity, it can be a very bicoastal conversation or a big-city conversation,” Ali pointed out. “It’s really impacted rural and southern states in a disproportionate way.”

The divide also severely affects Black, Latino and Indigenous students, who make up about 55 percent of disconnected students, while representing about 40 percent of total affected students, according to the report. Sixty percent of disconnected K–12 students’ families are unable to afford digital devices, and about 25 percent, many of them rural and Native American, lack access to reliable broadband service entirely. Approximately 40 percent also face “insufficient digital literacy or language barriers.”

Schools across the country received $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act funding last year to help close these gaps as schools pivoted to virtual learning amid school closures. States also took the initiative to mitigate the divide with limited resources.

Texas launched Operation Connectivity, which provided about 1 million laptops and 500,000 hot spots. Oklahoma used grants to award 50,000 devices and data plans across 175 districts. Vermont provided $3,000 per family to offset line extension fees, while Alabama allocated $100 million and Ohio allocated $50 million for efforts geared toward expanding connectivity and access to devices.

In December, federal lawmakers approved additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, including $50 billion which can be used for pandemic-related expenses including distance learning.

But analysts say more than 75 percent of existing efforts aimed at closing the gap will expire within three years, meaning many students who've benefitted from these programs will lose digital access. More will be needed to close the divide and keep it closed in the years ahead.

Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy at Common Sense, said the good news is that districts and states have helped lay the groundwork for closing the divide.

“It’s not because of some technological barrier or something we have to innovate around,” she said. “With some policy changes and commitment to providing funding and support to address the divide, we can close these (gaps).”

Addressing tech adoption and affordability gaps for students nationwide will require an additional $6 billion to $11 billion in the first year and $4 to $8 billion annually after that. Funds will need to go toward installation, service fees, devices, repairs and support for Internet connectivity and e-learning devices. Additional funding will be needed to connect all students with broadband infrastructure capable of 100/100 Mbps.

“While prior analyses estimated that it would cost $10 billion to $20 billion at the low end and $80 billion at the high end to expand broadband infrastructure, these assessments did not fully account for costs related to home access to adequate speeds and ongoing maintenance to ensure sustainable, universal broadband access,” the report noted.

But failing to tackle digital inequity could cost even more in the long run.

According to the report, students without reliable tech and Internet access have lower GPAs than those with access. Those lower GPAs could eventually lead to a 4- to 6-percent drop in expected annual income, which will amount to a $22 billion to $33 billion annual loss in GDP.

“If you take that against the cost of doing it, even on the high end, there’s value,” Fazlullah said, adding that technology will play a role in mitigating the significant learning loss that has occurred during school closures.

Boston Consulting Group Managing Director Lane McBride said that when most students return to a full in-person learning model, the homework gap that existed before the pandemic will grow. Failing to close the divide, he said, will exacerbate systemic inequities.

“The digital divide predated the pandemic, leading to lower academic performance and learning loss for affected families,” he said. “And it will continue after the pandemic if we do not act.”

The benefits of digital equity go beyond just education, according to Fazlullah. Achieving digital equity could improve students' quality of life after high school when they seek access to jobs, telehealth services, social services and more. It will also enable families to safely access various public resources when there are risks or hurdles to doing so in person, for example during a pandemic.

“A lot of these things can be done through the Internet, and if you can’t do these things from home when people are socially distanced, you have to jump through a lot of hoops or put yourself in harm’s way to access these benefits,” Fazlullah said.

But closing the virtual gap is a multifaceted challenge that will depend on more than just funding. McBride said expanding broadband availability will require policymakers to “incentivize tech-agnostic investment and encourage shared deployment.” Public-private partnerships will also likely be necessary to assess specific student needs.

“To address non-financial adoption challenges, policymakers should also designate funds to offer technical and digital training, increase trust in technology solutions and design solutions to address distinct student needs — all with the aim of ensuring usage,” he said, adding that putting a timeline on closing the divide could still prove difficult.

All of this considered, analysts are confident that President Joe Biden’s newly minted administration will get the ball rolling in the right direction. They expect federal E-rate funds administered through the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, could help provide broadband services to students without reliable connectivity.

The new administration recently selected Miguel Cardona as its education secretary, bringing his experience as an educator in Connecticut’s high-tech Meriden Public School District and as Connecticut’s education commissioner to the table. Jessica Rosenworcel, a vocal proponent of expanding connectivity during her time with the FCC, also now serves as director of the FCC.

The FCC issued a public notice last week asking for comments about how E-rate funding should be used for digital equity.

“They’ve been really receptive to ideas and trying to get this right,” Ali said.

Fazlullah believes policymakers should examine how systemic inequities played a role in the digital divide, particularly for many students of color. She said this could influence how lawmakers respond to the infrastructural and tech needs of communities throughout the nation.

“We need to make sure policies stop the redlining of children out of education,” Fazlullah said. “Because we’ve allowed for redlined communities to have less access to connectivity through our policy choices, that has resulted in the digital divide.

“I’m hopeful that policymakers are going to end that practice and that they invest in support for services and devices, and that they invest in the deployment of robust infrastructure to every community in the United States.”

Some digital equity advocates and policymakers see this as an opportune moment to start closing the divide for good.

McBride said policymakers, educators and parents will also need to maintain an interest in the problem over the months and years ahead, even after students return to schools and vaccines are widespread. He said there's no "silver bullet" when it comes to digital equity.

“We are in a unique moment to close the divide — while there is focus and urgency on the issue,” McBride pointed out. “To succeed in bridging the digital divide, efforts must take advantage of the momentum on the issue today and maintain the need even beyond the pandemic."

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.