TODAY All Day town hall on how online learning can worsen the digital divide

Laila Nasher said that when her school went online at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she completed some of her schoolwork online.

Laila Nasher is a success story — a high school valedictorian from a poor school district in Detroit, she worked hard and got into Harvard. But her story also illustrates the inequities in education, and shines a light on how online, remote learning may worsen the digital divide for students.

Nasher, education experts and parents spoke to Sheinelle Jones on TODAY All Day, the TODAY show's streaming channel, for a special hour-long town hall about inequality in education, part of “Coronavirus and the Classroom,” a collaboration with Common Sense.

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As students plan to return to class amid the coronavirus epidemic, many will be doing at least some learning online. Some school districts are going entirely virtual; others are combining in-person and remote learning.

While advocates and experts have spoken about the digital divide for years, the epidemic has brought the issue to center stage.

What is the digital divide and why is it important?

Nasher, 18, told TODAY All Day about how she overcame the digital divide to graduate at the top of her high school class and get into Harvard University.

"I say (Harvard) was my dream school, but I never really wanted to acknowledge (that) for years, just because I never thought I'd be able to go it, because of my background," she said, calling her Detroit public school "very, very underfunded."

One in four students do not have an adequate internet connection or devices for remote learning.

"Most of our teachers are permanent substitutes. We don't have extracurricular opportunities. We don't have advanced academic opportunities. So, I just thought it wasn't possible for me to even apply to a school like Harvard."

Nasher said she worked with local volunteer organizations and non-profits to strengthen her resume, but was still nervous she wouldn't get into the Ivy League.

"My school’s limited opportunities and resources did help me find my passion, because I realized no student should have to accept this kind of education," she continued. "Education isn’t just a privilege, it’s a right."

"They should spend some money to help students that can’t afford to buy a $1000 MacBook while other students can."

When schools closed, Nasher found herself remote learning alongside her siblings. For the first month she and one sibling shared a laptop for school.

"It was a mess," Nasher told TODAY Parents in a phone conversation. "One of the first things I was worried about was not having technology. I had a laptop from an organization I volunteered with, but it's very slow and ... 95% of the time it doesn't work or it shuts down on you. I was really worried about that."

She said that she and her brother created a schedule to split time on the computer, and she would often use her phone to complete assignments.

Bridging the digital divide

Nationwide, one in four students do not have an adequate internet connection or devices for remote learning, leaving between 15 and 16 million students unable to access school regularly, according to an analysis by Common Sense Media. Experts estimate that closing the digital divide would cost between $6 billion and $11 billion dollars.

Nasher's school was eventually able to supply students with Chromebooks, but after she graduated and returned it, she was left without a laptop or computer. A financial award from Harvard means she'll have the appropriate technology for the upcoming school year.

"If I was going to University of Michigan or a community college, like a lot of my friends are going to, they wouldn’t have this opportunity," Nasher said. "It’s really unfortunate that we have to do online schooling, but we're not given enough resources to actually do virtual schooling. ... They should spend some money to help students that can’t afford to buy a $1000 MacBook while other students can. University and education is supposed to be the equalizer, but everyone’s ignoring these huge disparities in our education system."