The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a gaping chasm between local students with access to computers and the internet, and those without.
Of 3,299 students in Blaine County public schools, 296 had little or no access to the internet at home. It’s an astonishing number that is 9 percent of the public-school population.
The pandemic drove schools to close. In response, the Blaine County School District adopted dispersed education that requires the use of remote computers connected to the internet to keep students from falling behind.
The district deserves praise for scrambling to solve the problem with cheap computers and connective hotspots. However, the extent of the problem is a surprise in a relatively well-funded district that works with a local education nonprofit and that has access to grants.
The number of students with poor or nonexistent internet access helps explain—at least in part—an achievement gap that has bedeviled the district for years. While technology isn’t a cure-all for poor performance that occurs because of language issues or learning challenges, surely it can help.
Being deprived of internet access today is like depriving earlier generations of paper, pencils and books. It unnecessarily puts already disadvantaged students at more severe disadvantage. It’s a problem that students cannot overcome on their own.
The problem forces technology-deprived students to do homework at school or not do it at all. It also puts them and their families at a disadvantage in communicating with teachers.
The access gap compounds the performance gap. Less access to learning enrichment, which the internet provides, builds poorer performance with every school year that goes by.
The lack of internet access may have been a known problem within the district, but it’s a surprise to residents that don’t follow the district closely. Yet, signs of the problem were there all along.
A seemingly intractable achievement gap showed up in year after year of standardized test scores. Yet, lack of internet access and home computers weren’t high on the list of causes.
While the Idaho Constitution requires the state to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools, it doesn’t define the words “uniform” or “thorough.” Neither have the courts. That has allowed the state and local school districts to neglect what should be their digital duties.
The egregious oversight handcuffs students and damages their futures. It penalizes a society that needs well-educated citizens.
Today, no education is uniform or thorough that doesn’t include internet access. Virus or no virus, Idaho and local school districts must bridge the digital divide or reap unwelcome consequences.