the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado teachers, parents and students have been forced to adapt to periods of remote learning. Kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and offices have been converted into temporary classrooms as students try to absorb new material through small boxes on a computer screen.
Jazmine Palacios noticed this digital divide in her hometown of Alamosa, a rural community nestled in the San Luis Valley with a population of fewer than 10,000 people. Here, around 47% of the residents are Hispanic and the median household income sits just below $35,000 per year.
But some families have struggled to adapt more than others. In fact, approximately one out of every 20 students live in a house without internet access, according to an analysis by the Colorado Futures Center—and these households are disproportionately Hispanic, have elementary school-age children, and are in rural and/or lower-income areas. Many of these kids also don’t have desktop or laptop computers, making at-home classes and assignments even more difficult.
“My little 6-year-old cousin was getting on phone, so I asked, ‘What are you doing?’” Palacios recalled. “She said, ‘Oh I have to do homework!’ And I asked, ‘On your mom’s phone?’ and she was like, “Yeah, because I don’t have a laptop.’”
Last year, Palacios reached out to Tori Martinez, The Colorado Trust’s community organizer in the region who is working with a local, Colorado Trust-supported organization called Helping Others and Promoting Equity (or HOPE Alamosa), to ask if HOPE Alamosa could find a way to distribute laptops to students in need. “When COVID hit last March, we had to pivot what we were doing in community,” said Martinez. “What is it that community needs because of COVID? And Jazmine responded.”
Palacios, who was a community outreach assistant for The Colorado Trust at the time, discovered that her cousin had been doing all her homework on her mom’s phone for the entire school year. “That really broke my heart,” she said.
The idea caught on fast, and with the help of the Denver-based nonprofit PCs for People, 710 laptops have been distributed to schools in Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Larimer, Pueblo and Yuma counties this past school year. Through the earlier months of the pandemic, these computers allowed many students to keep up with their learning. And now that most schools in southern Colorado have returned to in-person classes, the devices will continue to provide essential help to students who need them during quarantines or summer school.
This digital inequity existed long before the pandemic rocked Colorado and the country. Since last March, when Gov. Polis issued an executive order to close all of Colorado’s schools, the majority of the state’s 1 million K-12 students have spent time in virtual classes.
As of 2019, 46% of adults nationwide with a household income below $30,000 a year didn’t have a traditional computer, according to a Pew Research Center report. On the other hand, among adults making $100,000 or more, 94% had a desktop or laptop computer, and around two-thirds had broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer, and a tablet. Because of these disparities, approximately 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the United States live in homes without internet connection or an adequate device for virtual learning, according to a 2020 report by the education nonprofit Common Sense Media. Households like that of Palacios’ cousin instead rely on smartphones for internet access. Overall, the percentage of “smartphone-dependent” internet users who make $30,000 or less annually rose from 12% to 26% between 2013 and 2019—a number that may continue to increase in the years to come.
“I use the analogy of driving a car. There are a lot of things that matter when you drive a car: There’s what car you are driving, how well you can drive, and what roads you’re on. All of these things influence your driving experience,” said Stephen Aguilar, an educational psychologist at the University of Southern California. This can be translated to remote learning, Aguilar says—the device someone has is the car, the experience they have with technology is their driving skills, and the broadband is the road.
“All of these things come together to create the learning experience,” said Aguilar. Yet for many, this experience is a poor one, and as people have started to rely more on technology over the past year, the digital divides have become strikingly obvious.
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