Positioned between major pressure points of the increasing infection rate in the majority of the US and the memory of virtual school they experienced in the spring, parents in the United States feel conflicted about the coming 2020-2021 school year. On one side of the coin, Parents express they feel overwhelmed by the prospect of home-educating their children while maintaining work in or outside the home. Mothers, in particular, shoulder the burden of home educating their children. Simultaneously, many parents also feel fear and uncertainty regarding whether or not in-person school is safe for their children considering the skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rate in the US occurring over the summer months. In fact, many of my friends have reached out to me to discuss my knowledge on digital school materials as they prepare for the fall semester to begin, expressing worry over the quality of virtual education.

However, there is another pressing challenge that will soon bear down on children who switch to virtual school because of COVID-19: if schools suddenly need to close, operate in a hybrid model, or if public schools remain 100% virtual, many American children will be unable to attend digital school altogether.

Before the pandemic, it was estimated that between 15-20 percent of households with school-aged children lacked broadband, and that proportion rises closer to 35 percent in lower-income families in the United States. Low income children are overrepresented in the US, and 43 percent of all children live in low-income families while 21 percent live in poor families. Statistics on the number of low income children have a relationship to virtual learning because cost is still a major barrier to broadband subscription in the US. Children stuck in the homework gap previously faced major challenges completing homework after school, and during widespread school shutdowns in the US and a pivot to online-only schooling, the virtual nature of public schooling revealed some hidden truths about the nature of broadband service in US households.

It is estimated that between 20-40% of public school students completely “disappeared” when the flip to completely remote schooling occurred in the spring. This disappearing act that districts refer to describes the phenomenon of a large proportion of American children simply never logging into or engaging with virtual learning systems during the spring semester of 2020.

The numbers of missing students vary depending on the location. In Los Angeles, about 30 percent of high school students and 40 percent of elementary school students went “AWOL”, in Trenton, NJ, around 40 percent disappeared, and these statistics are repeated over and over in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Boston, Washington DC, and Baltimore.

In Texas, the numbers of missing students vary but are upwards of 20 percent in its major cities. The San Antonio public school district reported that 25 percent of students could not be “found” after stay-at-home orders closed schools, while in Austin, half of students who needed Chromebooks could not be contacted by the district through telephone or electronic means. Houston reported that slightly over half of the public school students did not engage with their electronic school materials in the first weeks of virtual learning. The Texas Education Agency examined US Census data and surveyed superintendents in Texas and estimates that between 18-34 percent of Texas children do not have home broadband and that between 20-30 percent do not have a device for electronic learning.

The Pew Research Center estimates that 15 percent of American children lack high speed Internet at home. However, the much larger proportion of students who went missing from virtual classrooms may provide another indirect measure of the real proportion of families lacking broadband access in the United States. The realities of the digital divide persist 21 years after the NTIA’s famous report series Falling Through the Net first discussed the growing deficits between households with computers and broadband and those without, and linked broadband to educational and career attainment.

There are real consequences for children and families who cannot afford robust or reliable broadband service, or who may live in an area with poor broadband access. Truancy is a crime in many states, and virtual learning has already sent children to juvenile detention centers: in an Oakland County, Michigan courtroom, a judge stated a child was to be sent to a detention center because she was “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school”. States adopted flexible rules at the beginning of school closures, but with the school year looming virtual engagement may be the metric of assessing absenteeism from school. Texas Education Agency has released a guideline on attendance and virtual learning, and uses engagement and progress in a learning management system (LMS) as attendance metrics.

The fact that families must purchase a private information service to engage in public education collapses the boundaries between private interest and public good. School is free but it is also compulsory—the right to attend school comes with a legal duty to do so, and the pandemic may shortly collapse well-intended policies that link absenteeism with school funding, criminalizing truancy in the process. The purpose of these laws are to keep children enrolled in education and boost their overall chances for success. However, in the midst of this historic pandemic, it would seem that the actual consequence of these policies in digital learning environments is in fact criminalizing lacking broadband.

(Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels)