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More than a year after the pandemic forced students everywhere into an often haphazard remote learning experience, new data shows that many children from low-income families still lack the basic essentials to get online from home.

While remote learning may be ending in most places across the country, many students will continue to struggle to complete many lessons and assignments because they lack adequate internet service and access to devices at home — a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “homework gap.”

During a forum hosted by public policy think tank New America to discuss this new data, Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting FCC Chairwoman, called the homework gap “an especially cruel” part of the digital divide that existed long before the pandemic.

Despite various efforts by states and school districts to close the gap during the past year, 15 percent of children from families with incomes below the national median of $75,000 a year are still without fast and reliable home internet access, according to a new report from New America and Rutgers University. Twelve percent of families still have no computer at home.

“We need to look at this like any other utility,” said Christopher Rush, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, during the forum. “Any place that a kid lives in this country, any place that a family is in this country needs to have high-speed access.”

There are some positive findings in the survey. Since 2015, when the report’s authors, Victoria Rideout, president of VJR Consulting, and Vikki Katz, an associate professor at Rutgers University, first studied the issue, access to non dial-up home internet service among low-income families with children ages 6 to 13 has increased from 64 percent to 84 percent.

Related: They helped all schools get good internet, now they’re focusing on homes

What is alarming for advocates and policy-makers, is that even for families that do have broadband internet access at home, the survey found that most are “under-connected,” or lacking devices or service that are sufficient and reliable enough for remote learning. Fifty-six percent of families said their internet was too slow to properly participate in online learning. The families most likely to lack sufficient internet bandwidth and devices were Black and Hispanic, and families living below the federal poverty line. Sixty-five percent of families said their children couldn’t fully participate in remote learning because they lacked access to a computer or internet.

“The really sobering news is that even with our success and shrinking the number of Americans who are unconnected, we still have a really big problem with people who are under-connected,” said Rosenworcel during the forum.

The authors also found that between 2015 and 2021, the proportion of lower-income families who are under-connected has hardly changed. Whether students are learning remotely or in-person, Rosenworcel said addressing the homework gap — a term that she coined — is needed now more than ever.  

“We have to recognize that as we exit this pandemic, education has changed,” Rosenworcel added. “It has been digitized. There are new ways of teaching, learning, researching, and collaborating that we will take with us out of this period. We need to ensure that every student gets the connectivity they need to thrive so no child is left offline.”

An additional $7.17 billion, available through the FCC’s new emergency connectivity fund, will go toward the purchase of laptops, tablets, WiFi, hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connections “for off-campus use to serve the unmet needs of students, school staff, and library patrons.” The money, which schools and libraries could start applying for on June 29, “will help close the homework gap,” Rosenworcel said.

The New America/Rutgers survey, which was conducted by telephone to reach unconnected and under-connected families during the pandemic, is a nationally representative sample of 1,000 parents of children ages 3 to13. The report also excerpted discussions conducted with three dozen lower-income parents in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and in Santa Clara County in California.

The report includes insights on what parents say they have learned about their children’s education over the past year and what they are most concerned about for the next school year. Not only has parent involvement in their children’s education increased, 62 percent say they now know more about what their child is learning in school than they did prior to the pandemic.

However, while parents are concerned about what their children didn’t learn during the pandemic, half of the parents whose children will be entering first grade or higher said the most important priority in the fall is their child’s social and emotional well-being.

During the forum’s panel discussion on insights from parents, families, and local initiatives (a discussion I moderated), Janice Meyers, a grandmother and great-grandmother raising five children in Pittsburg, said her 5-year-old grandson couldn’t attend kindergarten because Meyers lacked access to services that would have made it possible to enroll him last year.

Meyers said while she’s worried that her grandson might now be a year behind his peers, it’s “the lack of connectedness with their peers” and her kids’ mental health that really concerns her. 

This story about the homework gap was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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