By Shara Tibken
CNET

The digital divide means millions of American children don’t have broadband connections at home, even as their schools hold virtual classes.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced California schools to close in March, the West Contra Costa Unified School District knew it had a problem. Most of its 29,000 students had school-provided Google Chromebooks, but an estimated quarter of them didn’t have access to reliable internet connectivity at home — something that was vital for attending classes virtually.

Cities like Richmond and San Pablo, which make up the WCCUSD, are nothing like the tech hub of San Francisco, despite being just across the bay. About 90% of the students are Black, indigenous or people of color, or BIPOC (including 54% Latino), and many of the district’s families can’t afford home broadband connections. Students would normally cope by doing their homework in a library or restaurant offering free Wi-Fi. Another lifeline: Sprint’s charitable 1Million Project, which offered free cellular hotspots to about 1,500 WCCUSD students.

The pandemic changed everything. When the WCCUSD turned to Sprint’s program to secure 1,300 more hotspots for low-income students, it had to buy the devices for $70 apiece. Worse yet, the program would soon end because of T-Mobile’s acquisition of the carrier. The combined company’s new program, called Project 10Million, will offer free internet service for 10 million US households, but it hasn’t yet launched, leaving the district in a lurch. (T-Mobile says it’s coming “soon.”)

Over five months later, it’s back-to-school season. Classes at the WCCUSD will remain virtual for the foreseeable future, thanks to the continued spread of the coronavirus, and the district still hasn’t figured out how to fully address the digital divide, which includes an estimated bill of over $3 million to get its students online.

“It’s been really rough,” Matthew Duffy, superintendent of the WCCUSD, says in an interview. “We’re handcuffed by … how much it’s going to cost.”

WCCUSD isn’t alone. San Francisco, which earlier this month secured $10.5 million in philanthropic funding, still faces a $14.5 million shortfall to equip all students with technology access and devices this school year. California struck a deal with Apple and T-Mobile — similar to an agreement reached in New York City — to make up to 1 million discounted, cellular-connected iPads and 4G service available to schools, but the individual districts are responsible for funding the cost.

As the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the US, schools across the country are figuring out how to hold classes this fall. Some are offering in-person sessions, but others — like the districts that cover 97% of the 6.2 million students in California — are opting for remote learning. Thirteen of the 15 biggest US school districts will be fully remote this fall, with their students attending virtual Zoom sessions or completing their Google Classroom homework online. Nearly half a year after the pandemic first shut down schools, many still don’t know how to make sure all students can attend virtual classes.

This shift online has shined a light on a long-standing problem that’s only gotten more severe in the age of the coronavirus: the so-called homework gap. The country has wrestled with a digital divide for decades, but the pandemic has exposed some of the most vulnerable populations: Students from poorer urban areas and remote rural districts, with minorities disproportionately hurt by lack of access to connectivity. In California, the wealthiest households are 16 times as likely to have access to home internet as the poorest ones, according to the Greenlining Institute. The worry is that the disconnected students, many who are already disadvantaged, will fall even further behind their more affluent peers.

“There’s so much of this crisis we can’t fix,” Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who coined the term “homework gap” well before the pandemic, says in an interview. “But the homework gap is something we can solve.”

An estimated 18 million people in the US don’t have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to a FCC tally from 2020. Experts say the official figures are almost certainly lower than reality because of faulty maps. Another study found about 16.9 million children don’t have the home internet access necessary to support online learning during the pandemic, according to a joint study from the Alliance for Excellent Education, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League and UnidosUS. Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native households are even less likely to have adequate connectivity, with one out of three lacking access at home, that study said.

Schools are being forced to tackle the digital divide problem in their districts, becoming experts in complex broadband options seemingly overnight. That’s on top of grappling with how to make sure their low-income students are fed and healthy, and navigating archaic regulations controlling how they receive funding. Various schools around the country have relied on emergency relief funds from the CARES Act to purchase devices and hotspots for students, while others have begged the public and businesses for help funding equipment.

“Even before the pandemic we had a homework gap,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “We all knew it, we all talked about it. It’s not as if the pandemic created the homework gap, it’s just that we can no longer conveniently have it swept under the rug.”

Device shortages

When the coronavirus exploded in China, it didn’t just kick off the proliferation of the disease. It also caused a shutdown in the production of electronics that we’re still feeling the effects of today.

The result was supply being unable to meet the demands sparked by the lockdown, from high-definition webcams to computer monitors. For Chromebooks, hotspots and other devices for education, shipping delays have been severe.

California’s Department of Education contacted electronics manufacturers and internet service providers to see what devices were available and what they could provide for the state’s schools before remote classes began. It estimated it would need over 700,000 computing devices and more than 300,0000 hotspots to get California students connected this year.

In April, Google agreed to give 4,000 Chromebooks to California students and provide free Wi-Fi to 100,000 rural households for three months. But the donation is nowhere close to meeting the need in the state. To try to bridge the gap, California reached a deal with Apple and T-Mobile at the beginning of August.

Apple agreed to make up to 1 million iPads available for California schools by the end of 2020. Districts can buy the year-old, seventh-generation iPad — the most recent model available — with cellular capabilities for $379, which is $80 less than what the general public pays and $60 below what students and educators pay on their own. It’s still more expensive than the Wi-Fi-only iPad, which costs $329 for the public or $309 for students and educators, but the built-in LTE helps address the connectivity problem.

T-Mobile’s 4G LTE service for the LTE iPads costs about $12 to $17 a month for unlimited data, depending on the length of the contract, the Education Department says.

“This is a game changer,” Tony Thurmond, California state superintendent of public instruction, says in an interview.

As part of that agreement with California, Apple has agreed to prioritize iPad shipments to the state’s schools as more supply becomes available, he says. The Cupertino, California, company has earmarked over 200,000 iPads for California districts to purchase immediately, he says.

“This is significant at a time when there’s a run on devices worldwide,” Thurmond says, adding that about 70 California districts so far have talked with Apple and T-Mobile about the offer.

At the same time, the state’s Department of Education is coordinating with electronics resellers to source other devices like Android tablets. Chromebooks, in particular, are in high demand but in short supply, says Mary Nicely, a senior policy adviser to Thurmond. One vendor has offered to convert a low-cost Microsoft Windows machine into a Chromebook, she says, and companies like Acer and Lenovo are also “trying to prioritize California.”

“We’re looking at backlog for all of our manufacturers in the millions, but they think that they can get those millions into California by the end of December,” Nicely says in an interview.

Overall, the California Department of Education sent requests to about 100 California companies for help with supplies or donations for remote school this fall. It would cost the state’s districts about $500 million to buy enough hotspots and computing devices for students who don’t have them. Of those requests, only about 10 companies have responded.

“While some companies have made donations, it’s been difficult to get many companies to really lean in,” Thurmond says.

California has the benefit of many Silicon Valley companies reporting huge profits as their technology becomes even more vital to keep people connected. In the June quarter, Apple, Facebook and Google reported a combined $23.4 billion in profit. In mid-August, Apple became the world’s most valuable tech company, worth over $2 trillion.

“I do hold out hope as these corporations figure out their financial situations post-COVID that there will be more money coming in from the private sector,” says Vinhcent Le, technology equity legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute.

But if one of the richest and most powerful states in the country can’t bridge the digital divide when it’s most dire, what hope do less-connected and poor states have?

Farm country

A 2.5-hour drive west of Washington DC through forestland and mountains, lies a rural part of West Virginia called Grant County. Most of the 11,600 residents in the 480-square-mile county work on farms, a local power plant, or in nearby factories for poultry production or kitchen-and-bath cabinets.

Grant County is the eighth most sparsely populated county in West Virginia when it comes to students per square mile, the local school district’s superintendent says. Grant County Schools serves 1,630 students, all of whom qualify for government-sponsored meals thanks to the low socioeconomic status of about three-quarters of the county’s residents, says Grant County Schools Superintendent Doug Lambert.

Compounding the problem: Only about 54% of Grant County’s residents have home internet access, and “we’re not sure [they have] the necessary … capacity to do what’s … expected on the internet platforms that we’re going to use,” Lambert says. A school survey found 44% of respondents don’t think their connectivity is fast enough for virtual school.

While about 5.6% of the overall US population lacks broadband internet, according to the FCC, the percentage jumps to 22% in rural areas. Building out high-speed internet networks is prohibitively expensive when there’s only one customer every mile or so. In many rural areas that have some sort of connection, there are only one or two internet providers, and the service available is pricey and spotty. Hospitals, schools and other critical groups have long lacked fast-enough internet to function, and it’s now heavily impacting students who will be learning from home.

Nicol Turner Lee, an expert on connectivity at the Brookings Institution, has proposed parking Wi-Fi-connected buses in rural communities around the US. By one tally, there are about 480,000 school buses that are largely sitting empty. They could be outfitted with solar-powered Wi-Fi routers and parked in underserved neighborhoods to act as community hotspots.

Some schools are doing it. The Florence County School District 2, one of five school districts serving Florence County in South Carolina, parks nine Wi-Fi-enabled school buses in neighborhoods with little broadband access.

“There are going to be traditional routes of access that we’ll be able to see like … hotspots, partnerships with libraries, digital parks,” Turner Lee says in an interview. “But then there’ll be places that we still need to be creative.”

Grant County Schools has given families the option of full-time virtual courses this fall, in-person classes or a hybrid of the two. About 18% of students have signed up for the virtual option, but because of the number of COVID-19 cases in the county, it’s possible that all students will start the academic year remotely.

As a result, come Sept. 8, the first day of school, Grant County Schools faces the possibility that the vast majority of its students will only be educated through paper assignments handed out alongside their free daily meals.

“We will do everything we possibly can to meet the needs of our kids,” Lambert says. “But we are very much hindered in the broadband capacity [of the county].”

Because the area is so poor, many families can’t afford to pay for service in their homes. Using smartphones as hotspots gets expensive really fast. And the county’s topography and remoteness means there are some places that don’t have access to broadband at all, even if the families could afford it.

On top of that, the local internet service provider, Frontier Communications, filed for bankruptcy in April, making it unlikely that it will expand its broadband internet footprint anytime soon.

Unlike many schools around the country, Grant County Schools didn’t offer personal Chromebooks or tablets for students before the pandemic. Instead, it has now refurbished old desktop computers and repurposed the district’s classroom laptops for the families who’ve chosen full virtual classes.

The remaining 1,200 students will have to wait until November at the earliest for their new Chromebooks to arrive. The district paid about $550,000 for 1,650 Lenovo models using money from the CARES Act and other federal funding that it received at the end of June and early July. Not getting the money earlier meant it was at the end of a long list of orders.

“All kids are important, all kids are special,” Lambert says. “What about my kids? Sometimes we’re forgotten because we don’t have political cloud.”

A national plan

Whether they hail from California or West Virginia, many schools hoped to tap into a tool that’s long helped their internet connectivity efforts: a federal assistance program called E-Rate. The FCC-run program provides schools and libraries with internet service that’s discounted by 20% to 90%, depending on the poverty level of the area.

Instead, they found that trying to expand their E-Rate discounts outside of the school walls would hurt them.

When E-Rate was introduced with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it was designed to discount internet service within building, not throughout the community. But some, like the FCC’s Rosenworcel, argue that the E-Rate mandate should be expanded to give schools Wi-Fi hotspots for students with unreliable home internet.

It wouldn’t be without precedent. In 2011, the FCC ran a pilot program with E-Rate, called Learning On-The-Go, to test providing connectivity for netbooks for students living in remote areas, among other efforts.

Since E-Rate is a program schools know well, they would be able to easily navigate the system to get more funding. And because the program is already in place, funding could be distributed quickly.

“It’s increasingly apparent we organize a lot of fundamental things for our students through schools,” Rosenworcel says. E-Rate “is the way to expedite connectivity for the most number of students as fast as possible.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the rest of the panel have resisted, saying E-Rate can’t be used to take steps like distributing hotspots. “Current law specifically allows E-Rate funding only for ‘classrooms,’ not student homes,” the FCC said in a statement. “That’s precisely why since March, Chairman Pai has repeatedly called on Congress to establish and fund a Remote Learning Initiative so that more students can get connected and stay online.”

One of those members of Congress trying to expand connectivity is Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York. She introduced House legislation in late April, the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020, that called for a $2 billion fund to get internet access to kids at home. The FCC would distribute the money to schools and libraries through E-Rate to buy hotspots and other Wi-Fi devices.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel now,” Meng says in an interview. “E-Rate is a known program, it’s a trusted program, and we think it’s the fastest way to go.”

In the Senate, Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, filed a companion bill that same month, called the Emergency Educational Connections Act. The bill, co-signed by half a dozen other Democrats, would provide $4 billion for the FCC to distribute via E-Rate.

While technology funding for disadvantaged students has broad support, the coronavirus stimulus proposals it’s packaged with do not. The Heroes Act and the Moving Forward Act, which both contain provisions to fund connectivity, were passed by the House but have stalled in the Senate.

Four months after the two education connectivity bills were proposed, there’s still no additional funding for E-Rate and internet connectivity, forcing districts to cobble together solutions of their own. Schools in places like California have already begun classes, and the rest of the country will begin within the next month.

Grant County Schools had hoped to use its school building E-Rate internet service — which is discounted by 80% from the normal service pricing — to provide connectivity for families and community members outside the school. The FCC wouldn’t allow it.

“We make emergency changes all the time,” Lambert says. “Why can’t we make a change at least temporarily to help us get through this with E-Rate? It’s fallen on deaf ears.”

Instead, Grant County Schools is drawing from $82,000 in funding it received from West Virginia to install five new hotspots around the community. Parents will be able to park their cars outside the new locations — as well as the two county libraries and four schools — to tap into the 20Mbps download and upload connectivity.

But even those 11 community hotspots may not be enough to get students online. The capacity will be shared with whoever’s parked nearby — including the broader community — and it falls below the FCC’s broadband definition of 25Mbps down (though the upload speed is better than the 3Mbps broadband standard).

Calling on the private sector

The private sector has stepped in to fill some of that gap. Carriers like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T have provided discounted or even free service for families. Device vendors have donated Chromebooks and other laptops and tablets.

At the start of the pandemic, Verizon reached a deal to provide discounted unlimited data plans for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second biggest district in the country. Very quickly, it realized other schools would need connectivity for students, and it reformatted its deal to extend it to other districts. The newly formed Verizon Distance Learning Program now has agreements to provide “really favorable” data rates to the rest of California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, DC., and 32 other states through its newly formed Verizon Distance Learning Program.

“This program is here for as long as COVID-19 is the pandemic that it is,” says Andres Irlando, president of Verizon’s public sector group that oversees its distance learning work. He declined to specify what rates the schools are paying for their data.

Hotspots make it easy for students to get online immediately, are ideal in places without fast wired connections and are helpful for families who are unstable with their living situations. But the longer term solution to keep kids connected is getting them hard wired connections at home, experts say. That’s where companies like Comcast come in.

To help during the pandemic, Comcast expanded its Internet Essentials program that connects low-income families for $10 a month. The company believes the moves have addressed problems families have experienced in the past, like being denied service because of older unpaid bills at Comcast.

Through at least the end of 2020, it will stop withholding access from families who have debt less than a year old (it had previously stopped denying service for debt older than that). In March, it boosted the speed of its plan by 10Mbps to 25Mbps, now meeting the FCC threshold for broadband, and it began offering 60 days of free service to families who qualify for Internet Essentials. Comcast also has streamlined its application process to make it easier for families to apply and get approved.

“If you’re a family with a student, more likely than not, you’re guaranteed an expedited application,” says Karima Zedan, who runs Comcast’s Internet Essentials business. “We want to get those households connected as quickly as possible.”

Because it could be tough for some families to afford even $10 a month, Comcast in mid-August introduced its new Internet Essentials Partnership Program that lets cities, schools and nonprofits pay for internet services for families for one or two years. Since the start of the pandemic, Comcast has signed up over 70 schools, covering more than 200,000 students, to the program. Chicago is one district that will make high-speed internet, via Comcast or RCN, available for free to about 100,000 Chicago Public School kids in their homes over the next four years.

“Reliable, high-speed internet is one of the most powerful equalizers when it comes to accessing information,” Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said in a press release announcing the initiative. “This program is a critical component of our … efforts to end poverty.”

In Grant Country, Frontier offers discounted home internet service for families through the federal Lifeline program. It lowers the monthly cost of phone or internet access by up to $9.25, but people who qualify can only get a discount on one of the services.

Across the country, teachers are expecting hiccups as the year gets started virtually. Sara Park, a ninth-grade English teacher at San Francisco Public School’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, says her first week of classes went more smoothly than in the spring — but about 15 of the 95 students in her three classes dropped in and out of the sessions because of connectivity, login and other issues.

“I fear that a digital divide this early within a student’s trajectory … ultimately feeds into a divide in whether or not you’re going to go to college,” Park says. “And [that] then turns into [whether you’re] accessing high paying jobs.”

Even if students have access to the internet and devices, they — or their parents — may not have the digital literacy required to participate in remote school. That includes tasks seemingly as simple as connecting a computer to a hotspot or figuring out how to schedule a meeting on a digital calendar.

“I truly do fear that even if every student has a laptop and hotspot, there’s no ensuring equity,” Park says.

As for the Bay Area’s WCCUSD, the school’s administrators scrambled to find ways to bridge the digital divide in their district as they prepared for remote classes to start on Aug. 17. Eventually, they identified another T-Mobile program, called EmpowerED, that would provide discounted monthly service and waive the hotspot pricing.

Unlike the Sprint 1Million program, which had strict eligibility requirements like only accepting high-school kids, T-Mobile’s EmpowerED is open to more students and is easier to join. But it has a big downside: it’s not free. After a three-month free trial, the WCCUSD has to pay a monthly fee of $20 per student for 4G LTE service. And it has to sign a year contract.

It’s costing the cash-strapped district about $540,000 to equip an additional 3,000 students with hotspots — on top of about $2.5 million it’s paying for 6,000 new Chromebooks.

“It adds up really fast,” says Tracey Logan, chief technology officer for the school district. The fear for the WCCUSD — and countless other schools around the country — is what happens if the pandemic drags into the next academic year. The school district already has to replace about $6 million worth of aging Chromebooks next year, and if even more of its students need home hotspots, the costs could skyrocket.

“It’s not really sustainable beyond a year,” Logan says. “Have we bridged the digital divide? Absolutely not.”

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