WASHINGTON, D.C. — The middle of March was not that long ago. That’s when the coronavirus pandemic was declared.
Instead of going to school, students got a crash course in learning from home. The same was true for adults working from home.
Network disruptions, while not as many as feared across the United States, were still fairly common. Children whose parents had no access to Wi-Fi, or broadband — or even a computer — were in the virtual dark, left to pretty much fend for themselves for the rest of the school year.
During school systems’ summer vacation, more districts were planning to reopen on a hybrid model, with students alternating days between in-person and online learning. Then the positive COVID-19 test results started to spike, and the number of deaths started to climb again, especially in the southern part of the country.
Meanwhile, personal computers — laptops, tablets and the like — were selling like hotcakes, leading to shortages. Some schools cut deals with Google to furnish Chromebooks for their students — who, of course, would use Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, Gmail and more.
But, just as public health officials’ warnings about COVID-19 have gone largely unheeded, parents’ warnings about chaos at the start of a new school year have likewise been ignored.
One solution to this mess is to mandate in-person learning. But that’s impractical when infections are easy to spread. It leaves parents and schools with an awful choice. Do you write off kids whose parents who are too poor to get computers or internet access? Do you risk children getting too sick to learn? Do you risk having teachers too dead to teach?
The landscape is not entirely bleak. There are some success stories.
San Antonio gets a gold star for its innovative solution: placing Wi-Fi at traffic signals throughout the city. That’s part of a municipal plan to help 20,000 at-risk kids. Would that more cities would imitate it.
Champaign, Illinois, installed equipment in August to deliver wireless internet service to students living in a trailer park in the city.
In Missouri, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is using $3 million of CARES Act money to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas in Missouri. An estimated 1,746 households will be connected, according to a USDA press release.
Verizon has partnered with the Texas Education Agency and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Connectivity initiative to provide up to 18.9 million students in Texas and 15 neighboring states with a simple and quick way to access critical distance learning technologies.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Aug. 14 that every eligible local educational agency in the state has applied for, and is receiving, a portion of the $5.3 billion in learning loss mitigation funds resulting from the pandemic. Newsom also signed an executive order directing state agencies across the government to bridge the digital divide, building on the state’s efforts to provide computing devices and hot spots to students across the state.
But there is more bad news than good. And if you get more wrong answers than right answers on a test, you flunk. And this is one of America’s biggest tests.
A study by Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, estimated that 16.9 million students are essentially logged out from school because they have no internet access at home. And it’s not as if they can all go to their local library — which may still be closed — or the closest McDonald’s.
Comcast has extended its “Internet Essentials” offer to low-income households, although complaints have arisen about uneven access and other problems. One Minnesota mother tried it before the pandemic, and said the data limit and frequent, time-consuming updates made it “the biggest headache on earth” and not worth the $9.95 monthly fee.
Roughly 25,000 Minnesota students didn’t have computers or internet at home by late spring, about 3 percent of the state’s K-12 students, the Minnesota Department of Education estimated, with little progress in addressing the problem over the summer.
In Maine, a survey conducted by Mission Broadband of more than 2,600 residents found that about 47 percent of them said their internet service has not met their needs since the start of the pandemic. Respondents said the biggest issues have been slow connectivity, unreliable service and cost.
A Baltimore Sun report said many Marylanders lack high-speed internet service for work and school. BroadbandNow Research found that 18 percent percent of residents in tribal zip codes lack broadband access, compared to just 6 percent in nontribal zip codes — and has the details broken down state by state on more than 500 tribes.
A report by Medium estimates that Verizon, AT&T and CenturyLink have overcharged customers nearly $50 billion since 2015 in local service overcharges. Rather than return the money to consumers, the communications giants could be told to apply the overcharged fees to bridge the digital divide.
Residents in some areas of Long Island, New York, were without internet service for much of August. Not only did they find themselves isolated from the online world like the pandemic has isolated them from their flesh-and-blood neighbors, but refunds are not likely.
In Ohio, a bill moving through the legislature creates the state’s first-ever residential broadband expansion program to address an access gap faced by hundreds of thousands of households across the state. But it also bars municipally owned networks and electric cooperatives from participating in the $20 million pot of funds aimed at extending internet access to areas with significant connectivity challenges.
Even before the pandemic, the Government Accountability Office was urging Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai to find ways to expand the “E-Rate” program to cover at-home broadband for students. But Pai has maintained in June he is “duty-bound” by federal law enacted in 1934 — decades before the internet existed — to fund broadband only to schools and libraries — not to homes.
Another FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, begs to differ. “I’ve been railing at the FCC about it for years,” Rosenworcel told StateScoop, a government news website. “But now with this pandemic, we’ve sent millions of students home and told them to learn from their dining room table. So what is going to happen to all of those students who can’t connect? What is going to happen to all of those students who fall into the homework gap?”
The FCC had extended its Lifeline telephone access program to include internet access, but that’s been cut back since Pai became chair in 2017.
Jabari Simama, a government and education columnist for governing.com, a state and municipal governance news service, said Aug. 24 he “anticipated that there would come a time when the public might heavily rely on the Internet and citizens without it would be at a distinct disadvantage — economically, educationally and socially.
“Unfortunately, this time has come, and after six months of making a go at it, far too many still are not prepared to function in a virtual world. An estimated 35 percent of Black households and 29 percent of Hispanic households are still without a broadband connection,” Simama said.
In his book “Civil Rights to Cyber Rights,” Simama wrote that the United States had “a moral obligation to see that broadband becomes universally accessible and beneficial to the public.” The urgency of the pandemic, he argued, may actually be “an opportunity to finally make significant progress on these digital issues.”
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.