Aug 12 2021

North Carolina’s Digital Equity Office Will Help Close Divide Facing K–12 Students

The new office will be charged with executing Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to expand broadband access in the state, providing reliable and affordable connectivity to all residents.

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the ongoing digital divide in the United States, in cities and in rural America. Students and their families, impacted by the necessary shift to remote learning, perhaps felt the repercussions of the divide most directly. North Carolina, a state with several major cities and large rural swaths, is one of the first in the nation taking steps to expand access to broadband connectivity to residents, with the goal of reaching all parts of the Tar Heel State.

In July, Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a new Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, which will spearhead efforts to execute on his plan to use about $1.2 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to close the digital divide in the state by 2025. This office will be the first of its kind in the U.S., creating guidelines other states may choose to follow to close the digital divide in their own communities.

The office will be part of the state’s recently created Division of Broadband and Digital Equity within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. Jeremy Collins, who served as director of the NC @ HighSpeed initiative in Cooper’s Hometown Strong office, will lead the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy. NCDIT Secretary and CIO Jim Weaver, meanwhile, named Nate Denny as the new deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity; Denny previously served as NCDIT’s chief of staff.

“The pandemic showed us more than ever the importance of digital equity in North Carolina,” Cooper said in a statement. “Creating the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy will enable us to accelerate the critical work of bringing all North Carolinians up to speed with the digital society so they can live more equitable, prosperous, educated and healthier lives.”

How the Digital Divide Affects K–12 Students

When the pandemic forced schools to hold classes primarily online last March, students who did not have access to teachers or class materials faced a significant disadvantage. Districts with higher poverty rates disproportionately resorted to distributing paper packets of lessons and homework for students, with 47 percent calling these physical distributions a “primary component” of their remote learning plan. Districts with lower poverty, meanwhile, relied on digitally distributed materials, with 77 percent using online tools to share resources with students.

While distributing hard-copy materials may seem like a solution, the students who lack access to devices and connectivity have an average GPA that is 0.4 point lower than students with reliable access to devices and the internet. Additionally, the research shows that students without reliable internet access are, on average, 26 percent less likely to seek higher education the year after they graduate high school.

While the digital divide has narrowed since the pandemic began, an estimated 12 million students still lacked reliable digital access as of January 2021.

READ MORE: Secure your district's network for students returning to in-person learning.

North Carolina Aims to Close the Digital Divide

While some districts have successfully provided connectivity to their student population on a smaller scale, Cooper aims to boost the percentage of North Carolina households with children that have high-speed internet subscriptions from 81 percent to 100 percent by 2025. He also wants to increase the percentage of North Carolina households with high-speed internet subscriptions from 73 percent to 80 percent.

The plan is also focused on closing racial disparities in access to high-speed broadband and seeks to increase adoption rates to 80 percent across racial subgroups, including Native American (currently 57 percent), Black (currently 64 percent), Hispanic (currently 68 percent) and white populations (currently 76 percent).

North Carolina ranks 18th among states in terms of broadband access, according to BroadbandNow Research, a firm that provides independent data and research on broadband access and policy.

While 94 percent of North Carolina residents have access to broadband connectivity of 100 megabits per second or faster, according to BroadbandNow, only 46.8 percent of the state’s residents have access to a low-price broadband plan. This provides a significant barrier to broadband access for low-income families, or those who have been thrown into financial turmoil as a result of the pandemic.

MORE ON EDTECH: Should students be required to turn on their camera in distance learning?

North Carolina’s Plans for Providing Service

The new digital equity office will execute Cooper’s plan to expand digital literacy offerings and partnerships across North Carolina, as well as lead the Digital Equity and Inclusion Collaborative and promote the state’s digital inclusion playbook for local municipalities.

Cooper’s plan is built around three pillars: infrastructure and access, affordability and digital literacy. He proposes using $600 million in federal funding to “rapidly build crucial infrastructure in unserved areas to give internet speeds” of 100Mbps downlink and 20Mbps uplink to 98 percent of households, and 50Mbps downlink and 10Mbps uplink to 100 percent of households (with the ability to handle future speeds of 100/100Mbps).

The plan also proposes using $420 million to “promote federal programs for affordable internet and continue subscription support once federal funding ends” and $165 million to “give 365,000 households the devices, repair support and digital literacy and skills training to participate in the digital economy.”

“An additional $15 million would cover administrative and operational costs to supplement existing state administrative capacity to support high-speed internet efforts,” the plan notes.

North Carolina expects that the plan also will require “significant private investment,” presumably from internet service providers. The North Carolina legislature is separately considering a $750 million bill to expand broadband access in the state.

DIVE DEEPER: What do K–12 leaders need to know when spending federal funds?

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