From April 2020, NOLA Public Schools district laptops are delivered to John F. Kennedy High School during a statewide school shutdown meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Photos provided by Kevin George)

When Louisiana schools and businesses closed their doors to curb the growing spread of COVID-19, the state’s digital divide and stark inequality only became more apparent. Young people without access to computers or the Internet couldn’t learn or work remotely, and spikes in coronavirus cases are sending more kids home from school.

Before the pandemic hit, Louisiana had the fourth-highest rate of youth disconnection in the entire country, with enormous disparities in who was connected and who wasn’t. Disconnection measures the number of young people, aged 16 to 24, who are out of work and out of school. The youth disconnection rate among Black Louisianans was 22.3 percent, nearly double that of white Louisianans at 12.2 percent. It was even higher than the statewide disconnection rate at the peak of the Great Recession, which was 19.7 percent in 2010. 

As a result of the pandemic, youth disconnection in Louisiana will spike. The COVID-19 vaccine brings hope for in-person learning. And it’s up to policymakers to make sure all young people are back in the classroom and everyone is safe. 

Our policymakers must also prioritize initiatives that can start bringing the number of disconnected youth down and start putting young people who face the steepest barriers to reconnection at the front of the line. To do that, they must think beyond traditional education and job opportunities and invest in infrastructure that allows vulnerable communities to connect to health care, schools, and jobs. 

With the rising availability of the vaccine, affordable public transportation has become a necessity. Public transportation is limited in rural parishes in Northeast Louisiana, making it even more difficult to get to work, school or medical services. Even a handful of new bus lines could make a major difference. 

Moreover, young Black people in rural Louisiana face the greatest challenges. Several parishes in the largely rural northeastern corner of the state have one of the country’s highest youth disconnection rates at 26.8 percent. But the situation is even more dire for Black youth, 45.6 percent of whom are disconnected. 

However, even in well-connected cities, the relatively lower rates of youth disconnection don’t tell the full story. In Baton Rouge, the overall youth disconnection rate is 9.7 percent, but the rate among Black youth is almost double that at 18.1 percent. Those with the most tenuous connections, pre-COVID-19, are at risk of never returning to school or work.

Poverty is a major driver of youth disconnection. In Louisiana, 42 of the state’s 64 parishes meet the standard for persistent child poverty. In every single parish, Black workers earn less than their white counterparts. This lack of access to opportunity robs families of economic stability and social mobility. For example, the two northeastern parishes with the highest youth disconnection rates are East Carroll Parish at 77.2 percent and Madison Parish at 46.4 percent. It’s no coincidence that these parishes also have some of the lowest qualities of life in Louisiana, as detailed in our new research. More than 25 percent of adults lack a high school diploma and more than half of all children under 18 live in poverty.

Incarceration is another significant factor that plays a large role in the striking disparities by race and gender in youth disconnection. Nearly one in four Black boys and young men who are disconnected from work and school are living in an institution. Louisiana locks up far more of its population than any other state, and Black Louisianans are starkly overrepresented.  Thirty-three percent of the state’s population is Black, yet Black Louisianans made up 67 percent of the prison population in 2017. Even after being released from prison, a young person’s criminal record creates lifelong hurdles to employment and reliable wages. 

COVID-19 has also illuminated the deep digital divide across Louisiana. A shocking 22 percent of households have no Internet access, and the pandemic has accelerated the shift toward a virtual world. Homework, remote jobs, and even telehealth services are online. All of that is here to stay. Our policymakers must treat broadband as a utility like electricity, rather than a luxury item, and commit to making it available to all Louisianans.

2020 exacerbated the inequalities throughout Louisiana that limit the choices and opportunities of too many young people. But by recognizing the patterns, paying attention to the data, and taking action quickly, those in power can stop this trend in its tracks.

Kristen Lewis is director of Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council.

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