Every year, back-to-school elicits a feeling of excitement and nervousness for over 50 million students across the country. This year, those feelings are even more potent. For a year and a half, over 90% of students in the US participated in some form of distance learning and they are stepping foot in new classrooms and new schools for the very first time.  

As students return to in-person education, they return to a performance gap that has been magnified and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout distance learning, students relied on a combination of high-speed broadband, functioning internet-enabled devices, and the requisite skills and support system to thrive in a digital environment. However, for millions of students, these three tools were out of reach and distance learning was a constant battle. For 3 million students, it was enough to go missing from their classrooms.

A return to the classroom not only means the return of friendships and recess but also provides educators the first opportunity to examine and measure the impact of a growing homework gap. The homework gap, a term that refers to students who do not have reliable internet access to complete assignments after school, has prevented millions of students from progressing alongside their well-equipped peers. As most school districts mandate a return to the classroom with few exceptions for continued distance learning, teachers and educators will see, in person, the consequence of 18 months of learning loss for disconnected students. Without a fast, affordable, and reliable broadband connection or internet-enabled device, these students are beginning a long journey of educational recovery. 

After months of declining COVID-19 infection rates in the late summer of 2020, many school districts across the US attempted a return to the classroom. While some were able to successfully complete a number of weeks in person, the country saw a spike in infections in the fall of 2020, driving many students back into their homes for distance learning and driving disconnected students back into the homework gap. A false start and a sense of optimism to get struggling and disconnected students back on track were lost. At the same time, experts were finally gaining an understanding of the successes and failures of distance learning in spring 2020. Some students thrived while others went missing entirely.

According to Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization that focuses on historically overlooked communities, by October 2020, millions of students were missing from classrooms for the 8th consecutive month. “For approximately 3 million of the most educationally marginalized students in the country, March might have been the last time they experienced any formal education — virtual or in-person.” Since March 2020, school districts have taken active and widespread measures to bridge the gap, but Fall of 2021 will be an upward battle for the students who remain disconnected. 

While countless students, even those fully connected throughout distance learning, were negatively impacted by remote learning, historically disadvantaged students will likely face more consequences and prolonged challenges. 

The unexpected onset of distance learning and the COVID-19 pandemic required almost every school district and community across the country to connect students through any means necessary. Next Century Cities has highlighted the variety of ways in which our member municipalities invested in their students through device distribution, broadband subscriptions assistance, and technical support. 

Communities across the country continue this work with sustained investments in connecting students. For example, in Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan is building on the success of the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit to connect more students and their families. By founding the Connect Maryland program, communities can tap into $400 million in broadband funding, including the new Maryland Emergency Broadband Benefit Subsidy Program. The program follows guidelines for its federal counterpart, including a provision that pre-qualifies families in the Free and Reduced School Lunch Program from the Department of Agriculture. It also extends eligibility to the community school lunch program, which offers free and reduced lunch to entire communities based on poverty rates. The Emergency Broadband Benefit and a number of other federal programs providing direct-to-consumer subsidies and guarantees of no disconnections have been collectively available for over a year. 

However, with a rapidly changing COVID-19 situation, and the looming threat of a return to distance learning, local leaders must ensure that students and their support systems, especially in historically marginalized communities, are aware of the countless programs in place. Even with the Emergency Broadband benefit and a number of other federal, state, and local connectivity programs, millions of students were disconnected and missing. 

According to USAToday, over 1000 schools have already made the difficult decision to return to distance learning. While this decision is important for protecting public health, it can also seal the fate of disconnected students facing another year of learning loss. Without proper support from local officials and community leaders, families will fail to be digitally prepared. Local governments can support their students with subscriptions, devices, and support, but that may not be possible for every municipality. Many Next Century Cities’ members have provided informational support and guidance on topics including the Emergency Broadband Benefit. This support is equally important as the school year kicks off and can determine a student’s success for years to come. 

Despite the negative implications and long-term consequences of distance learning, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the major shift in public opinion for closing the digital divide. Stories of students completing homework in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants and a widespread, personal struggle for millions of families revealed the breadth and depth of the homework gap. 

According to a recent report from the Pew Center, 49% of Americans now believe that it is the “responsibility” of a school system to provide laptops or tablets for their students. This metric has increased 12% since 2020, a significant and optimistic change. However, the report also revealed a troubling practice: 37% of low-income students were required to complete their work on a mobile device throughout the pandemic. As pandemic-related connectivity solutions expire and students return to the classroom, students that benefited from short-term programs may be forced back to the wrong side of the digital divide. 

In August and September 2021, 50 million students walked into classrooms for the first time, but how long will they stay and how many are still missing? As the federal and state governments activate and utilize billions of dollars to close the digital divide, local leaders must be equipped with the knowledge and tools to support broadband access and adoption for students of all ages. This will ensure a more successful back-to-school than in 2020.

The pandemic is still ripping through communities from coast to coast. Municipal officials and community leaders should gather or confirm accurate homework gap data and account for any missing students. Access to granular, accurate, and timely statistics helps to inform connectivity solutions, devices, and digital skills development. Local leaders are also uniquely positioned to form or strengthen relationships with state counterparts and peer governments to stay abreast of new information and application windows for grant programs. The more tools local leaders are able to equip themselves with, the more they are preparing their educators, students, and communities to succeed in a world of unknown.

Students and their families across the country have faced unprecedented challenges during the 2020 and 2021 school years. With constantly fluctuating COVID-19 numbers and school operating statuses, they have remained flexible while operating in new environments. For the wealthy and connected, distance learning allowed for innovative teaching methods and revolutionary learning. For the disconnected, it meant dropped calls and missed assignments. As communities traverse the 2021-2022 school year, only proactive planning and permanent hands-on solutions will allow us to learn from the past and connect every student.