Gateway Cities at the center of the digital divide in Massachusetts
The deep digital divide in Massachusetts is one of many glaring inequities brought into focus by the pandemic. Before schools were hastily forced into remote learning mode, the problem was largely perceived as rural. Coronavirus turned this long held notion upside down overnight. In some urban districts, anecdotal reports suggest more than half of students have yet to logon and on any given day three-quarters are missing from class. Leaders must marshal a coordinated response to this challenge that reduces the amount of valuable learning time lost this year, prepares for future disruption with the likely return of the virus in the next school year, and most importantly, places us on a pathway to permanently close this increasingly problematic opportunity gap.
Almost as if the Census Bureau anticipated this moment, they released new data on home technology use just recently. We mapped out these figures to quantify the magnitude of the need and better understand how targeted intervention might occur. Here’s what we found:
Nearly 30,000 Gateway City households with school-age children do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home.
This amounts to approximately 28 percent of Gateway City families with k-12 students. Nearly 40 percent of households in Lawrence do not have a computer, the highest share in the state. More than one-third of households in Chelsea (34 percent), Fall River (37 percent), Holyoke (35 percent), New Bedford (36 percent), and Springfield (37 percent) lack computers at home.
The interactive maps below shows both the percent of households in each city or town that do not have a computer and the absolute total number (click on the titles to toggle between the two views). These maps illustrate the degree to which Gateway Cities sit at the center of the digital divide. Together, the 26 state-designated Gateway Cities are home to about one-quarter of all households in Massachusetts, yet they account for more than 40 percent of households with no computers.
Our estimate of the total number of households with school-age children who lack computers is far higher than the Census figures for all households in the entire state reported recently by the Boston Globe. This is because our estimate does not include households with only a smartphone or tablet. While it is possible to do remote learning on these devices, many educational platforms for elementary students are designed for the Chromebook; for middle and high school students producing longer writing assignments and utilizing more sophisticated applications, phones and tablets are especially inadequate.
More than 23,000 Gateway City households with school-age children do not have internet access.
The Census figures show nearly one out of every four Gateway City households lacks internet connectivity at home. Fall River has the third highest share of disconnected household in the state (32 percent), trailing behind the small Franklin County towns of Monroe and Wendell. Springfield (31 percent), Lawrence (31 percent), Holyoke (29 percent), and New Bedford (27 percent) all land in the top 10 Massachusetts communities with the lowest rates of household internet access. If the group of 26 Gateway Cities were a county, the share of households (22 percent) without internet access would surpass Berkshire (18.6 percent) and Franklin (18.8 percent), the state’s most rural counties. Similar to the one above, the interactive map below provides both the share of households and the number of households with k-12 students who lack internet access.
A handful of Gateway City neighborhoods have even larger concentrations of disconnected households.
The share of households without internet in Gateway City neighborhoods (as denoted by Census tracts) generally ranges between 10 and 30 percent. However, some areas standout with especially limited access. Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, and Pittsfield all have neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of households lack internet. Fall River has five Census tracts where between 40 and 55 percent of residents have no connection. Across the Gateway Cities, there are approximately 100 neighborhoods where more than one-quarter of residents have no service. As depicted by the interactive scatterplot below, internet access in most of these communities is highly correlated with neighborhood poverty rates. High-poverty neighborhoods are the places to focus first. If a large share of students served by a school are unable to participate, it makes it that much harder for teachers to convince families that remote learning is real and worth the effort.
Providing computers, internet access, and capacity building is a significant but critical long-term investment.
The figures above underestimate the demand for computers because the Census counts households rather than students. While one device per household would certainly be an improvement on the status quo, asking a child to miss out on learning because a sibling’s class is online at the same time is untenable. Assuming two school-age children per household would double the number of devices required. And a program led by the state would need to address the needs of all disadvantaged students in Massachusetts, not just those living in Gateway Cities.
Increasing internet connectivity would likely require a mix of industry incentives and infrastructure investments in public housing projects and other locations where barriers have been too great for private industry to overcome. There is discussion of including funds for such broadband investments in the next federal stimulus package, which might defray some of the cost to the state.Investments in technical assistance and capacity building will also be required. Already, there are reports of schools making devices available, but families not taking them up on the offer. With any new technology, there is a learning curve. Helping students get online is difficult for parents who are working out of the home. And learning remotely in small crowded apartments is challenging even with the best technology.
We also must consider what it will take to maintain access to computers in the internet at home long-term, and structure this unprecedented effort to close the digital divide accordingly. Letting access to technology part us again when the crisis abates would be yet another blow to students and families who have been temporarily empowered with essential 21st century learning tools.