Like many students around the world, Nora Medina is adapting to online learning. But Medina, a high school senior in Quincy, Washington, who also takes classes at a local community college, faces an additional challenge: She doesn’t have reliable internet service at home. She lives 7 miles outside of town where she says neither cable nor DSL internet is available.
She can access the internet on her phone, and her family has a wireless hot spot, but she says the service isn’t up to the task of doing homework online. “It’s hit and miss,” she says. “Sometimes I can watch a video, but sometimes I can’t even refresh a page, or it will take minutes to load something on a page.”
Washington governor Jay Inslee this week said the state’s schools will be closed for the rest of the school year. Quincy High School is still planning how best to help students finish the year. But Medina’s classes at Big Bend Community College have shifted online. “I’m just going to hope the hot spot works and wish for the best for my final quarter,” she says. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll do my work from my car in the parking lot at the library to access their Wi-Fi.”
Medina is one of millions of people in the US who lack reliable broadband internet at home, either because they can’t afford it or because it simply isn’t available where they live. This digital divide has always left children and adults alike with fewer educational and economic opportunities. But with schools, libraries, and workplaces closed during the coronavirus pandemic, those without broadband are struggling to access schoolwork, job listings, unemployment benefit applications, and video chat services that others use to keep in touch with friends and family. For those on the wrong side of the digital divide, working from home isn’t an option.
The Federal Communications Commission says more than 650 broadband internet providers, telephone companies, and trade associations have signed its Keep America Connected Pledge to not terminate internet service over pandemic-related financial troubles, to waive late fees, and to allow free access to Wi-Fi services. Comcast said it would offer free access to its broadband service for low-income households, normally priced at $10 a month, for 60 days, and Charter said it would offer free internet access for students for 60 days. But these offerings are available only in locations where those companies already provide service.
It’s hard to gauge the extent of the problem. In a report last year, the FCC estimated that 21.3 million people had no access to broadband internet service at the end of 2017. But the report, based on self-reported data from broadband providers, considers an entire census block to have service if a single broadband provider claims to offer service anywhere within the census block, even if most homes within the area can’t get service. Critics have long pointed out that this method likely underestimates the number of people without access to broadband.
A report published last year by Microsoft estimated that 162.8 million people in the US—about half the population—don’t use broadband internet, whether because it’s unavailable where they live or they can’t or won’t pay for access. A survey commissioned by Microsoft and the National 4-H Council found that 20 percent of rural youth lack access to broadband at home, regardless of whether it’s available where they live.
How Schools Are Coping
The digital divide creates a challenge for teachers and administrators who know some students can’t easily follow online lessons. Berkeley, California, schools closed in the middle of March, but the distinct didn’t begin online classes until Monday. In the interim, public schools superintendent Brent Stephens says officials had to work out how to accommodate special-needs students, adjust union contracts, and plan lessons for 16,000 students.