Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
With almost 44 million American kids out of school, teachers want to turn to online learning — but not everyone can log on.
Brooke Young was driving by the library she manages in Salt Lake City when she saw two teens huddled by the staff door trying to access the building’s free Wi-Fi on their phones. The county, like several others across the U.S., had shut down all public facilities, including libraries, to curb the spread of coronavirus. And Utah Governor Gary Herbet had announced a “soft closure” of all K-12 public schools, with the option for districts to resume class online.
But getting online for class will be hard for kids in Young’s Glendale neighborhood, where residents are largely immigrant, of lower income, or part of the refugee community. “We’re in a historically underserved community, and it has the lowest rate of internet-at-home in the city,” she says. Many students would typically do their homework at the library. With libraries closed, both the Wi-Fi inside and the hotspot devices they lend out are no longer available.
Tens of millions of public schools students in the U.S. are out of class this week due to the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Education Week. At least 40 states enacted statewide closures, and individual school districts in the remaining states have also announced shutdowns. Most schools are saying they will be closed for at least two weeks; Kansas became the first state to order its schools not to reopen for the remainder of the academic year.
For many of the more than 100,000 schools closed, teachers are moving their classes online. But not all students can take advantage because of the lack of technology at home, a disparity known as the homework gap. Some 15% of households with school-age children don’t have internet at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 census data. And in a separate 2018 survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, 1 in 5 teens told Pew researchers that they often or sometimes can’t complete assignments because they don’t have reliable access to the internet or a computer. Both reports found that affected students are more likely to be from low-income and minority families.
Without a sound contingency plan to get all students connected, already-disadvantaged youth will fall even further behind over the next several weeks, says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “The inequities in all our education systems are going to be even worse,” she says. “The kids whose families do have internet connection are going to have at least some learning continuing during this period, and the kids who don’t won’t.”
It’s not just about taking online classes: With libraries and recreation centers closed, and seating restricted at cafes and restaurants that offer free Wi-Fi, students miss out on a host of online resources that can at least partially help make up for missed school days.
The disparity speaks to the larger digital divide in the U.S., the impact of which is now exacerbated by waves of business and public-space closures, and by officials’ urges for residents to stay home. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million Americans lack fixed broadband access simply because their neighborhoods don’t have the physical infrastructure to connect, though one report argues that because of faulty metrics, the true number may be more than double the official figure.
And 2017 data from the Department of Commerce shows that some 22 million households don’t have internet because they can’t afford it or don’t need it. Of those, 6 million households say it’s too expensive, and a quarter of those have school-age children at home.
CityLab mapped this lack of internet access by school district, based on 2015 census data:
One of the least-connected school districts on this map is the rural Red Mesa Unified District in Arizona, where the majority of students are Native American. More than 80% — nearly 1,700 households — don’t have internet access, according to 2015 census data. But it’s not just a problem for rural communities: In Laredo Independent School District in the city of Laredo, Texas, nearly 14,000 households, or 53%, don’t have internet access.
In fact, NDIA estimates that some 15 million Americans without internet access live in urban and suburban communities, making up the majority of the digitally disconnected. And whereas rural communities lack adequate physical infrastructure to access the internet, the challenge among poor urban families is more often broadband adoption.
Some families rely only on their smartphones and data plans. “It’s not that the mobile phone is superior; it’s that you have to choose,” Siefer says. “And if your budget is already having a hard time with any service plans, you’re going to choose the one that can go with you.” The 2018 Pew survey found that 1 in 4 teens in households making less than $30,000 don’t have a computer at home. But even one computer may not be enough to be shared among parents and their kids.
Filling digital gaps
With shutdowns expected to drag on for weeks, if not months, broadband and telecommunication companies have significantly expanded access to their services as part of the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Both Charter and Comcast are opening up their Wi-Fi hotspots for public use and offering free plans to new customers in low-income households or who live with students. “Kudos to the broadband providers stepping up to help during this time,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement, though she urged the agency to go further and make hotspot loans available to all students.
Education officials and teachers, meanwhile, are scrambling. Philadelphia announced Wednesday that its school district won’t offer remote learning, with superintendent William R. Hite Jr. specifically citing inequity as the main reason. The majority of the district’s 200,000 public school students come from low-income families. “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” he said at a news conference.
Some districts are better prepared than others to offer distance learning. In Kansas City, Kansas, schools will begin handing out devices acquired from their ongoing partnership with Sprint through its 1 Million Project. “We’re going to doing some bookkeeping, making sure that they’re all charged and ready for pickup,” says superintendent Charles Foust. Families who need internet can also pick up hotspot devices and get free service through the internet provider Spectrum.
In South Bend, Indiana, officials are turning 20 unused school buses into traveling hotspots and will send them to more than 30 different sites every day except Sunday. Students can access the Wi-Fi within 300 feet of one — bus drivers will stop near parks and other open spaces — using the Chromebooks schools handed out earlier in the year.
Teachers in other cities have sent kids home with packets and workbooks while officials try to procure the necessary devices. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest public school system, 300,000 students lack electronic devices at home. The education department is hoping to purchase and deliver at least 25,000 iPads through a partnership with Apple, while also training its 80,000 teachers on how to make virtual lesson plans.
Some districts are still trying to figure out who needs help. The nonprofit Connect For Good provides discounted and sometimes-free refurbished devices to low-income families in Kansas City, Missouri. CEO Tom Esselman says they need to prioritize families with children, but first, they have to figure out who they are.
“Not just cities, but also individual school districts and administrators have not taken seriously the issue of how many families are really truly affected by the lack of access,” he says.
Currently the Kansas City chapter of NDIA has set up a form on its website asking people to describe what exactly they need. The group Leanlab Education has also sent out a survey tool for schools to start collecting data on things like the number of children, the level of internet access, and the number of devices each family has. The first report with aggregated data is set to come out Monday and will help coalition members like Esselman better coordinate their efforts.
Esselman is frustrated that it took a pandemic to expose how critical digital inclusion is when advocates like him have been trying to raise awareness for at least the last five years.
“We’ve said from day one that Wi-Fi connectivity should be viewed the same as electricity and running water, but because of the economic and commercial implications, we felt like we were years away from that,” he says. “But, oh boy, this crisis is making it appear now why we might get there sooner than later.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the location of the 20 free Wi-Fi buses. It is South Bend, Indiana.