Digital divide means Ky. kids risk falling behind

Risks grow as pandemic limits in-person instruction

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

More than 1 in 3 students of color in the Commonwealth, and 30% of all students, lacked adequate technology at home before the pandemic, putting them at higher risk of falling behind in school, according to a new KIDS COUNT County Data Book.

Alicia Sells, director of innovation and communication at the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, works with high school students in five counties. She said many households lack the bandwidth for streaming, or internet service is limited, with entire households relying on a single smartphone.

She said wireless hotspots such as MiFi cards have been one practical solution, and she wishes they had the resources for more.

“I’d put one of those MiFi cards in the hands of every student in Kentucky, to enable them to get past this digital access problem that we have, with them not having the ability to stream, to download homework, to watch teachers who are leaving video lessons for them,” Sells said. “I think that would be a huge benefit to kids who are struggling.”

Sells said she hopes state policymakers will consult with their local school districts on immediate solutions to ease the digital divide.

Other recommendations include allowing cable companies to subsidize internet for low-income families, or shift funding that typically goes to schools and libraries’ high-speed access to individual households. To view the County Data Book, visit kyyouth.org.

Dr. Kish Cumi Price, director of education policy and programming at the Louisville Urban League, said high-speed internet is simply unaffordable for many families, and the economic downturn means more households will miss utility payments, which also impacts kids’ ability to access learning at home.

She said the situation is dire for those who can’t keep up with schoolwork.

“Many of us who are trying to assist are a level removed from that reality, because we’re not having to pull up in McDonalds’ parking lots and try to have our kids connect,” Cumins Price said. “I want people to understand that this is a serious need.”

While the Data Book finds Kentucky’s child poverty rates decreased before the pandemic in 107 of the 120 counties, Patricia Tennen, chief operating officer at Kentucky Youth Advocates, said COVID-19 will be a major setback.

“There’s no denying that this experience is going to be far-reaching. Some kids could be years behind,” Tennen said. “And so, I think at this point, we need to be thinking about how can we serve those kids now.”

According to the Data Book, about two-thirds of Kentucky’s Latinx households with children report losing employment income since the pandemic began. And, several months into the pandemic, fewer than half the state’s Black households with children reported being employed in the past week.