Although issues of equity and inclusion aren't new, the pandemic has focused awareness and foreshadowed the obstacles
Due to various Covid-related restrictions, many schools continue to remain closed around the world. In summer 2020, A UNICEF analysis found that close to half a million students remain cut off from their education, thanks to a lack of remote learning policies and/or necessary gear to carry out remote learning from their homes. And as UNICEF admits, this number is probably on the low side because of skill gaps with parents and teachers to help their kids learn effectively with online tools.
While the situation has largely improved since last year and a growing number of kids are getting back into their regular classrooms, there are still critical gaps in math and reading skills (and a wide disparity when comparing country-wide data). For example, according to UNICEF, “in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad, almost no children aged 7 to 14 demonstrate foundational reading and numeracy skills that they should have acquired in Grades 2 or 3. In contrast, in Turkmenistan, over 80 per cent of the children in the same age group have foundational reading skills.” Not surprisingly, children from wealthier areas have rated higher on these skills, and boys scoring higher than girls. See the below chart from UNICEF.
Image credit: UNICEF
The equity and inclusion problem isn’t exactly new, but the pandemic has focused awareness and foreshadowed the obstacles. Several years ago, a US congressional joint economic committee report had already offered some numbers on just how pressing this problem was: Roughly 30% of Black households, 26% of Hispanic households, and 35% of Native American households did not have a broadband connection at all, compared with 18% of white households. And nearly a quarter of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year don’t have a smartphone.
“This is not just a Covid-19 issue — it is a civil rights issue of the utmost importance,” says this post in Education Week.
Other studies, such as this one from the Education Trust/West, found similar disparities in the US. Some US states are trying to reverse these trends and make their programs more inclusive. For example, both New York and Maryland are allocating funds to encourage more broadband and digital equity initiatives. New York’s program is centered around grants to fund technology and training, while Maryland’s is broader and includes more local focus and programs to train teachers on ways to bridge the digital divide. Roughly a quarter of Maryland’s homes lack wireline broadband service.
The aforementioned Education Trust/West study also has policy guidelines for state lawmakers, such as encouraging public/private partnerships to promote wider broadband adoptions and create additional professional development and IT support for teachers in underserved areas.
Some government funding already exists that can close the digital divide, such as the federal E-rate program to improve student Wi-Fi access and federal tribal grants to predominantly Native American areas. With better administration and full support from Congress, these funds could have an immediate impact.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that remote learning could be extended as a way to improve digital access and equity after schools reopen. UNICEF offers this series of suggestions in a factsheet:
One of the biggest impacts could be universal and affordable broadband access. “Broadband is so influential on society that we would now call it essential infrastructure,” say researchers at The Brookings Institution. Their report cites that “those least likely to have broadband in America are communities of color and low-income communities, suggesting that systemic barriers remain in place.”
Some localities have already taken the initiative to improve their municipal broadband services. A shining example is the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. This was due to some forward-thinking city leaders, including having a municipally owned electric utility that rewired its grid to provide broadband to every home and business within the 600 square mile city limits. However, even in this area, attempts to expand broadband beyond this coverage area have so far failed to gain traction, further demonstrating that we have a ways to go in finding a long-term solution.
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