They sit in hot cars, some switching the air conditioning on and off to save fuel. Some just sit on the asphalt using portable TV trays as desks, trying to find shade while staying tethered to the signal.
“I hate it,” said Gabriel Alston, 8, whose apartment in the nation’s capital has low-quality WiFi that’s always glitching, leaving him hanging during his classes at Creative Minds International Public Charter School. “I can’t hear anything on the computer, but when we’re in real life, I can hear everyone. I miss seeing real people.”
When the janky Internet connection goes out, his mom, Gabrielle Alston, tries to use the hotspot on her phone, but then her data runs out. So she packs up the kids and goes looking for a better connection. Parking lots. Family members’ homes. And by then, half the lesson is over.
It’s the digital divide, pandemic edition. And it’s another social inequity, another yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots that’s totally man-made. And solvable.
It starts with hardware — that’s the easy part.
Maurice Cook did it on a grass-roots scale in D.C., getting more than 200 backpacks with laptops and hotspots to school kids through his nonprofit, Serve Your City. That’s in addition to nearly 21,000 laptops the public school system distributed.
But that’s only half the problem. When classes are online over Zoom — which your mom’s mobile phone hotspot can’t handle all day — a free laptop becomes about as useful as a 1940 Smith Corona typewriter.
Cook stood on the steps of D.C. city hall Wednesday urging leaders to see the bigger picture — that without real access to high-speed Internet, kids across America are essentially “logged out of school.”
“In Atlanta, Chicago, rural Kentucky, in Minneapolis, St. Paul, in Philadelphia and right here in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.,” he said, “we won’t accept being logged out anymore.”
In D.C., the divide is especially stark, with 20 percent of the city’s households lacking access to high-speed Internet. That translates to at least 20,000 children, according to a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education.
The gap is particular to low-income students and students of color. The study said that nationally, 1 in 3 Black, Latino and Native American students — 4.7 million kids — don’t have high-speed Internet access and will essentially have the school doors shut on them this academic year.
D.C. has acknowledged the issue, writing a report on it in 2015. According to the report, the challenges to universal broadband “were identified as broadband affordability, access to reliable broadband services, and perceived utility or relevance.” In other words, it’s about money and politics.
In some cases, it’s not just about income, but infrastructure. Rural areas have been shut out of the technology race for years. And rural doesn’t have to mean heartland. A teacher at a high school in Maryland, just 40 miles away from the U.S. Capitol, says she can’t get broadband at her home.
“Someone just told me . . . that I should TEACH FROM THE SCHOOL PARKING LOT,” she tweeted. A fellow Twitter user expressed incredulity, so she replied: “Seriously I’m teaching from the parking lot.”
The teachers union in Prince George’s County has protested, saying that the lack of access to broadband for both educators and students will make teaching nearly impossible.
The digital divide isn’t a new problem. The White House put out a report in 2013 alerting America to the coming crisis in broadband inequity.
Like all the other inequalities that the pandemic is putting in stark relief, technology has been leaving people behind at an astonishing rate.
“These issues are not something that have just come up because of” the coronavirus, said Pranav Nanda, a former high school teacher who works with nonprofits, including Cook’s, to help kids in need. “These are not issues that came up in the summer, they’re not issues that are going to come up [only when we start] school.” D.C. Public Schools start classes next week.
The technology divide echoes generations of systemic racism, he said. And, like the racism baked into the construction of and access to education, housing and banking, there are ways to fix the situation.
Schools are trying. North Carolina is fitting idle school buses with power hotspots and dispatching them to parking lots kids can get to. A doctor in Greenup, Ky., offered the parking lot outside her medical office to students who need broadband access. Libraries are inviting students to crib off their signals.
“Internet access and a computer doesn’t just represent access to education,” Nanda said. “It represents access to job opportunities.”
And health care and modern life. This grand, virtual experiment won’t end once the coronavirus goes away. More learning, more work, more transactions will remain online.
It would cost about $80 billion to create broadband for everyone, wrote Tom Wheeler, former head of the Federal Communications Commission, in a report for the Brookings Institution.
“Where that money comes from is a matter for Congress to determine,” Wheeler wrote.
We did it with roads and phone lines. Time for America to realize that broadband access for everyone will be just as important to American society. Otherwise, we’ll have millions and millions of people who are permanently logged out of daily life.
Read more Petula Dvorak: