Before the pandemic, it was called “the homework gap,” because of the growing number of teachers who assigned homework that required Internet access. Now, as the pandemic forces many schools to switch to remote learning, disconnected students will miss more than homework. They’ll miss all of school.
The issue affects a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latino and Native American households — with nearly one-third of students lacking high-speed Internet at home. Students in Southern states and in rural communities also were particularly overrepresented. In Mississippi and Arkansas, about 40 percent of students lacked high-speed Internet.
After the closures prompted by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, school systems rushed to buy and distribute laptops and WiFi hot spots to students, and service providers offered discounts to low-income families, efforts that made a dent in the numbers.
Education advocates say Congress could deliver an easy fix as part of a coronavirus relief package by expanding an existing program that helps schools and libraries get Internet service. But those hopes collapsed alongside talks between Congress and the White House on a new relief package. With talks deadlocked, President Trump issued an executive order for coronavirus relief. It provides nothing for K-12 public schools. The consequences of the gap between those who have access to virtual learning and those who do not could be felt for years to come.
“It’s dire,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who has pushed to increase funding that subsidizes the cost of Internet service for schools and libraries. Her district contains parts of rural Virginia that are not served by Internet service providers. “We are generationally committing to significant divides in our communities over what kind of education our children are getting.”
Internet access is so central to children’s education that allowing students to go without it is like sending them to classrooms without textbooks, said Jordana Barton, who studies the digital divide in Texas as a community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. So many students being without Internet service is “a travesty,” she said.
“Before the pandemic, I thought that the homework gap was so serious that Internet should be provided by the schools,” she said.
Educators have long seen access to high-speed Internet as essential — not optional — for students. Now, the pandemic has forced many schools to start classes remotely, and the problem has taken on new urgency. Because the Internet is essential to gaining access to virtual instruction, a failure to provide the service to students is akin to barring them from school altogether.
“It’s going back to the old days where we blocked people from going to schools to be able to learn to read,” said Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas. More than half of families in Martinez’s district do not have high-speed Internet service at home. “It’s like us saying, ‘You can’t come into class. You can’t come to school.’ ”
Maryland resident Haydee Berdejo, 18, does not have high-speed Internet at home in Baltimore and can get online only with a smartphone. When her magnet high school, Baltimore City College, shut down in mid-March, she spent her school days hunched over the phone, where she had difficulty hearing her teachers.
Berdejo, who is from Mexico and still learning English, said the setup made bridging the language gap even more difficult. At times, the screen was fuzzy. And though her classes are mostly taught in English, with the schools closed, she no longer has access to a translator.
She said she is anxious about the coming school year because she has had little opportunity to practice English. “I’m worried I won’t be able to participate in class or answer a question from the teacher, because I won’t know what they’re saying to me,” she said in Spanish.
Even as many students start school without high-speed Internet service at home, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have done little to help school systems meet that need. Many have given up hope that help is coming and have instead appealed to charities, philanthropists and the Internet service providers themselves, hoping for donations or discounts. Susan Enfield, the superintendent of the Highline Public Schools in Washington state, set up a program to allow more-affluent families to “sponsor” low-income households by paying their Internet bills.
Though some service providers offer discounts to low-income families, service is still out of reach for those who have poor credit or unpaid bills. And even the discounted rate can be too much — especially for families struggling with job losses.
In Baltimore, the school system helped set up 7,000 families with Internet Essentials, a program that provides low-cost Internet service to qualifying households. The first two months of the program were free. But last month, the school system realized that if it didn’t pay the $650,000 bill, many of those families would lose service.
“I was not going to stand by and let 14,000 students not be able to log on because of a bill we knew needed to be paid,” said Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “It’s yet one more thing that, in serving children and families, schools are being asked to do.”
The lack of a national strategy has left superintendents to devise solutions on their own. And that means whether students get connected often depends on the charisma of a superintendent and the generosity of the surrounding community, Santelises said.
“It is the leaders who are trying to do deals, who are trying to negotiate, trying to leverage money here, leverage money there,” Santelises said. “If we are relying on the individual negotiation capacity of Sonja Santelises or any other sitting superintendent to make sure families have WiFi, that is problematic, and it is a split, and it is symptomatic of a much larger issue.”
A long-standing program run by the Federal Communications Commission that subsidizes Internet service for schools and libraries is of little help to students during the pandemic. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told schools they can use the funding only for Internet service at their campuses — even when schools have been shut down. Pai has said that the law does not allow the money to be used for providing domestic Internet service and that he does not have the authority to do otherwise.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the panel, disagrees — as do congressional Democrats and school leaders across the country. She accused the commission of failing to act to address what she called “a national crisis.”
“The FCC is sticking its head in the sand or looking the other way and doing everything it can to ignore this,” Rosenworcel said. “This is something we can fix — and we should.”
Schools and students have been left to find solutions on their own. The parking lots of schools, libraries and fast-food restaurants that offer free WiFi have become de facto classrooms for many students. Other school systems equipped buses with WiFi hot spots and parked them in underserved neighborhoods. In some school systems, such as Baltimore, officials just paid the bills of hundreds of families out of their own budgets to keep the households online.
But none of the improvised solutions are sustainable or scalable, and they often rely on the ability of school officials to court philanthropists and negotiate with Internet service providers.
Cleveland public schools CEO Eric Gordon said he hopes the pandemic will force lawmakers to rethink how they view the Internet. He said two-thirds of households in his district can connect to the Internet only by cellphone, which is inadequate for virtual classes.
“It’s just time we recognize that the Internet has become a utility in the same way electricity became a public utility,” Gordon said.
Bryan Akins, the principal of Keota High School in rural southeast Oklahoma, said many of his families do not have a reliable cellular signal — let alone high-speed Internet. Companies see little incentive to lay broadband lines in places where they will not get many customers, or they pass the expense to customers, charging more to those who live in far-flung communities. The school’s switch-over to remote learning in the spring posed “a big problem,” Akins said.
“My teachers can teach virtually, but my students can’t access it virtually,” Akins said. Instead, staffers in the high-poverty district delivered homework along with weekly grocery packages. “Now you’re relying on the parent to help teach, or the student to teach themselves.”
But although connectivity challenges are often viewed as a rural problem, many students in urban districts also lack high-speed Internet service at home. In some cases, this is because they live in neighborhoods that — like many rural communities — do not have the infrastructure. In many others, the barrier is the expense, even though many service providers offer low-income families steeply discounted Internet service. Families that are facing financial turmoil in the recession may opt to drop the Internet.
Jaclyn Trapp, who is to start 10th grade at MC2STEM High School in Cleveland, shares a Chromebook with a little brother and with three stepsiblings who visit on weekends. When the pandemic hit, her mother and stepfather, both interior house painters, took a huge hit financially as work dried up. So they canceled their home Internet service, which had cost around $60 a month.
Jaclyn began using her phone as a hot spot — but soon she was out of data. Finally, the family struck a deal with an upstairs neighbor who agreed to allow the family to use his WiFi if they split the bill. But the signal, which has to travel to their downstairs apartment, is slow and unreliable.
“Without the Internet and not going to school, it’s really hard to do schoolwork,” Jaclyn said.