Volume 53, Number 4 Fall 2020

Rural Interest Group

Edited by Susana Helm, PhD, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa

The Rural IG column of The Community Psychologist highlights rural resources as well as the work of community psychologist and allied professionals in their rural environments. We invite submissions from Rural IG members, from people who present on rural topics during SCRA and other conferences, and from leading and emergent rural scholars.

In this TCP issue we are featuring Kenneth Polishchuk from the APA Advocacy office where he serves as Senior Director for Congressional & Federal Relations. We asked Kenneth to elaborate on his May 2020 brief entitled Advocating for Equity in Internet Access for Students Learning from Home, circulated by our APA colleague, Javier Aquino at the Rural Health Network. Kenneth’s article builds on our column in the last issue featuring rural demographic trends and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic in Rural America (Carson, TCP 53-2). Below Kenneth refers to rural population statistics. For an in-depth discussion of how rural populations are defined and counted, please see TCP Rural IG column 53-2 (Rizzo, et al 2019). Kenneth focuses on access, a long-standing issue in rural health (see TCP 47-3, Rural column).

Closing the Digital Education Divide in Response to COVID-19

Written by Kenneth Polishchuk, Senior Director for Congressional and Federal Relations Advocacy, American Psychological Association


As the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted education online, it is changing the way students are learning. High numbers of parents are reporting that their children—many of whom have spent months in social isolation—are facing social and emotional health challenges, including loneliness, anxiety, and depression (American Enterprise Institute, 2020). Many also are being exposed to varying levels of trauma that may undermine their sense of safety and stability, and which may have long term impacts on their daily lives, including their ability to engage in learning.

For a variety of reasons, distance education has not risen to the challenges of meeting current educational needs (Hobbs & Hawkins, 2020). New data show that about 15 to 16 million students, and as many as 400,000 teachers, lack adequate access to the internet and/or devices (Chandra, Chang, Day, Fazlullah, Liu, McBride, Mudalige, & Weiss, 2020). Furthermore, in many areas, teachers lack experience with remote learning; parents do not have the additional time to devote towards their children’s studies; or students simply have not logged on (Educators for Excellence, 2020). Significant disparities exist in access to technology and broadband connectivity, which is particularly pernicious for the most vulnerable students, many of whom require accommodations in ordinary times, including those with disabilities, in foster-care, or living in poverty. This is further exacerbated across the urban-rural divide.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 13 percent of U.S. households with children live in rural areas. Among them, 1.7 million households, or two out of every five families, do not have high-speed internet service at home. This equates to 37 percent of rural students without a home broadband connection compared to 25 percent in suburban households and 21 percent in urban areas, with the greatest disparities existing in rural southern and southwestern states (Perrin, 2019). At the same time, just 27 percent of rural school districts set expectations on how to provide remote instruction during COVID-19, as compared to 51 percent of urban districts (Gross & Opalka, 2020).

These are all factors contributing to learning loss and further increasing the risk that millions of students will have large gaps in educational attainment, impacting their preparation for a lifetime of learning and employment. Preliminary research already is bearing this out. The average student could begin the next academic year having fallen behind academically by as much as seven months (Dorn, Hancock, Sarakatsannis, & Viruleg, 2020; Kuhfeld, Soland, Tarasawa, Johnson, Ruzek, & Liu, 2020). These losses are expected to be greater for minority and low-income children (Chetty, Friedman, Hendren, Stepner, et al., 2020), further widening racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Black and Latinx students could experience learning losses up to an equivalent of 10 months.

As state budgets shrink and school districts struggle to address a range of challenges associated with both returning students to the classroom and maintaining effective remote learning options, the federal government will need to step in to provide further support. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate Program is a longstanding, bipartisan, universal service program that provides annual discounts for broadband and Wi-Fi to K-12 public and private schools and public libraries. The FCC E-Rate Program may be the most expeditious, efficient way to close connectivity gaps and meet currently growing needs.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has called on Congress to provide at least an additional $4 billion for E-Rate in a forthcoming COVID-19 relief package. This would increase connectivity for students in rural, urban, and tribal communities. Additionally, to address broadband disparities among low-income college students, APA is advocating for the inclusion of the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act (H.R. 6814/S. 3701) in any coronavirus-related legislation. This bill authorizes a $1 billion higher education emergency relief fund to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and other institutions of higher education serving large numbers of Pell Grant recipients.

Although these actions will not fully address the scope of the challenges before us, they are critical to ensuring equitable learning opportunities to all students—irrespective of racial or socioeconomic status—and helping to mitigate increasing achievement gaps among traditionally underserved populations, including students in rural communities.

Reducing education disparities and promoting health equity are among APA’s advocacy priorities developed by the APA Advocacy Coordinating Committee with input from the APA membership. To keep informed about APA’s federal and state advocacy activities, sign up to receive APA’s Washington Update or join the Psychology Advocacy Network to receive calls to action.


American Enterprise Institute. (2020). How parents are navigating the pandemic: A comprehensive analysis of survey data. Retrieved from:

Chandra S, Chang A, Day L, Fazlullah A, Liu J, McBride L, Mudalige T, Weiss, D, (2020). Closing the K–12 digital divide in the age of distance learning. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Consulting Group.

Chetty R, Friedman JN, Hendren N, Stepner M, et al. (2020). Real-time economics: A new platform to track the impacts of COVID-19 on people, businesses, and communities using private sector data. Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved from:

Dorn E, Hancock B, Sarakatsannis J, & Viruleg J. (2020). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company, June 1, 2020. Retrieved from:

Educators for Excellence. (2020). Voices from the virtual classroom 2020: A survey of America’s teachers on COVID-19-related education issues. Retrieved from:

Gross, B. & Opalka, A. Too Many Schools Leave Learning to Chance During the Pandemic. June 2020. Center on Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved from:

Hobbs TD & Hawkins, L. (2020). The results are in for remote learning: It didn’t work. The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2020. Retrieved from:

Kuhfeld M, Soland J, Tarasawa B, Johnson A, Ruzek E, & Liu J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University:

Perrin, A. Digital Gap between Rural and Nonrural America Persists. Pew Research Center. May 31, 2019. Retrieved from