The Covid-19 crisis has changed the relationships we have with others. It has changed how teachers interact with their students, how we interact with our friends and family who do not live with us, and how we interact with our colleagues and our services.
As social distancing has forced us apart, we have looked for new ways to connect, to learn, to work and to live, bringing to the fore the digital inequalities that separate those who have and those who do not.
It is easy to assume that everyone has access to the digital world. We saw daily government briefings with web addresses etched across the lecterns and over a million of us and counting received the shielding letter which contains more than 10 different links to government websites. The truth though is that 1.9m households in this country do not have access to the internet.
Of course, this may also be by choice. There are many people who do not want internet access, or those who feel like they are fine without it, and this may continue to be true for people who live in tight-knit communities with a reliable support network. But in times like now, where lockdown has transformed how we go about our daily lives, the challenges that staying at home presents are made more prominent. We are building up to a chequered picture of loneliness, growth in educational inequalities and people being unable to access the essential services that have moved on from face-to-face meetings.
The Office for National Statistics found that the number of non-internet users has declined in recent years, but as of 2018 this still consisted of 10 per cent of UK adults. This decrease in non-internet users is positive, but as more people use the internet, services are moving online too. This is good for those that are able to connect, but it furthers the divide between those who can access it and those who cannot.
In addition, there are those who are classed as digitally connected that suddenly find themselves at home with numerous household members needing to access the internet at the same time with only one device to do so, or a connection not capable of sustaining so much activity.
The rightful closing of schools and working from home when possible has meant that a family of four, for example, who are digitally connected with one device, are finding situations where both adults need to use the device to work, and both children needing it to access their learning. The family is therefore having to choose between income and education, without the disposable income to purchase more devices.
To try and reduce the educational inequalities that emerge from children being unable to attend school, the government is encouraging schools to re-open, whilst also providing devices and internet connections to students of exam age. The reality is that they never truly shut anyway, and the distribution of connectivity to only those doing exams is insufficient considering the wider picture.
Teachers have been on the frontlines supporting NHS and care workers by opening their classrooms to ensure that the key workers’ children have somewhere to go to learn in the day whilst at the same time providing online learning where possible to those at home; this provides an ample balance between safety for teachers, support for workers, and effective learning for students.
However, the government’s in between approach of only helping some students to work from home whilst hoping to push the rest back to school is lacking in scope and ambition, when a scheme of device and connectivity distribution to the wider student body would have much more benefit now and into the future.
The best thing that the government could and should do is to fund the institutions that are seeking to close the educational and digital divides and to expand connectivity to those who did not have it previously, by distributing devices to those that need them. Campaigns like DevicesDotNow have already distributed over 1,000 devices and are ready and waiting for government investment to expand the scheme nationwide. Despite the government’s numerous expressions of support for the campaign, no money has been forthcoming.
The digital and educational divides cannot be closed until the playing field is levelled by having access to the internet, especially now public places which provide access, like libraries, are closed. We need investment into closing these divides now, before we end up with a lost generation of students and a mental health crisis amongst those cut off from the world around them.
Julie Elliott is the Labour MP for Sunderland Central and chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group Digital Skills