Coronavirus lockdown, lack of broadband could lead to 'education breakdown'

As schools shift to online teaching, students without access to broadband could be left behind.

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Schools across the country are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, forcing students to go online to learn. But the new digital classroom will likely leave behind millions of children, who lack reliable internet at home.
Jeffry W. Myers/Corbis via Getty Images

This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

Larissa Rosa, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Public School 7 Samuel Stern in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, has for the last five weeks taught remote classes from her apartment in Manhattan. But she's increasingly worried that too many of her students are being left behind as they're unable to connect to the online sessions.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a lockdown of millions of people around the world, and New York, where schools have been shut down since March 16, has been one of the major epicenters of COVID-19 cases, with more than 145,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday afternoon. As a result, teachers and students have resorted to distance learning with online classes. 

But Rosa said at least 45 of the roughly 400 students at her school haven't logged on once. There are many reasons why students may not be showing up, such as parents working or families that are dealing with the virus, but one of the biggest issues she hears from families is a lack of broadband access

"These are already students who were not at grade level," Rosa said. "I just worry that they're falling further behind. And it doesn't look like anyone is trying to fix this."

Since March, when governors across the country began declaring public health emergencies and issuing shelter-in-place orders, 47 states and the District of Columbia have closed schools due to the coronavirus, according to Education Week. All told, at least 124,000 US public and private schools across the country have closed their doors, affecting 55 million students. And as many as 38.6 million students won't be going back to school until at least the fall.

Districts have scrambled to replace their in-person instruction with some form of online learning. Some schools are offering live video streams, while others post assignments online and expect students to access content and assignments. 

But as the weeks drag on, it's become clear that not all students have access to broadband, exacerbating an existing equity problem in American education. The result is that millions of students throughout the country aren't getting the same educational opportunity as their peers. 

As evidenced by what Rosa is hearing, this is happening everywhere from big cities like New York, where broadband providers offer free or low-cost service (but with restrictions), to rural parts of the country. Philadelphia delayed offering online classes for more than a month due to unequal internet access at students' homes. 

Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said policy makers have known about the digital divide for nearly two decades. But making sure every person in the US has reliable access to high-speed broadband at home has never been a priority. She said the coronavirus crisis should change that, especially in light of what's happening to school-age children, particularly those in low-income or rural households. 

"We keep talking about a financial and economic meltdown," she said in an interview with CNET. "But what about the education breakdown? I fear an entire generation of students who were already experiencing inequities in our society will be at an increased risk of falling further behind as a result of this crisis." 

What is the digital divide? 

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 21 million people in the US don't have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. More than a quarter of these people live in rural areas of the country where broadband isn't available because building networks in rural America is incredibly expensive. In sparsely populated areas of the country, broadband providers simply won't offer service if they can't get enough customers.


The streets of Manhattan stand nearly empty due to the coronavirus epidemic as schools and businesses are closed and residents are told to stay home. 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Accessing broadband can also be difficult for people in cities. For example, more than a third of Bronx residents don't have broadband at home, and nearly half of all New Yorkers living in poverty lack home broadband access, according to the office of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. What's more, 1.5 million New Yorkers have neither a home broadband connection nor a mobile connection on a phone or other device. 

Affordability, access to computers and training on how to use the internet are all issues that contribute to the persistent connectivity and adoption issues disproportionately facing low-income and people of color throughout the country. 

All of this is particularly problematic for millions of students whose schools have moved online.  

It's estimated that about 12 million children across the country fall into what's been called the homework gap, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee. These are children for whom access to broadband services at home is unavailable, leaving them unable to access homework and other educational resources online. Data from a 2017 Pew Research report suggests that just over half of families earning less than $30,000 a year have broadband access at home. 

Jin-Soo Huh, a former director of technology at the KIPP Chicago charter school and now an educational consultant, said low-income students are also less likely to have a computer to use at home or they may have to share it with siblings or parents. They also may not have a quiet place to do work, and they're less likely to have a parent or caregiver to help them, since many parents may be working outside the home or working at home but too busy doing their own work. 

Huh said the current crisis may only increase the inequalities that many low-income students already face. 

"I really worry about going months without access to academic content and whether that will just accelerate the widening gap among our most vulnerable students," he said.

What schools are doing

Some schools have been taking matters into their own hands and have found creative ways to bring broadband to their students. Florence County School District 2, one of five school districts serving Florence County in South Carolina, strategically parks nine school buses with Wi-Fi hotspots in select neighborhoods where there's little-to-no broadband access and spotty wireless service. The buses, which are parked from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. daily, also deliver grab-and-go lunches to students, nearly three-quarters of whom live in poverty as measured by the South Carolina Department of Education. 

"Students can pull up in the parking lot and download their assignments from Google Classroom or communicate with a teacher," said school district Superintendent Neal Vincent.

Vincent said Wi-Fi can also be accessed from the parking lots of the school district's administrative office and at each of the elementary, middle and high schools, as well as outside the Pamplico Public Library. The school has also loaned some mobile Wi-Fi devices to students who don't have broadband at home but live in an area where wireless broadband is available. 


School buses outfitted with Wi-Fi are parked in neighborhoods allowing students in South Carolina access to internet service so they can download and upload assignments during school closures.

Neal Vincent/Florence County School District 2

Florence County District 2 isn't alone. Other school districts throughout the country, such as Coachella Valley Unified School District in rural California, are also offering the same access. The Philadelphia school district, which began its distance learning program just this week, is offering "Parking Lot" Wi-Fi as an option for households that aren't yet connected to the internet. 

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel applauded these efforts in a tweet this week, but she was quick to point out that this is not a long-term solution. 

"Good that local officials are trying to help get students connected," she tweeted. "But shame on us. Parking-lot wi-fi shouldn't be a thing. We need to fix the #homeworkgap and provide broadband for all."

Long before COVID-19 showed up in the US, Rosenworcel was highlighting the homework gap and calling on policy makers to fix the problem. But as the crisis has deepened and as schools have shut down, she's been demanding the FCC take action now. 

Specifically, she's asked the agency to extend its E-Rate program, which provides funding to schools and libraries for broadband connectivity, to provide schools with Wi-Fi hotspots to lend to students with unreliable home internet. It's an idea that Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and others in Congress are pushing in new legislation introduced this week by Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, that would create a $2 billion emergency fund for the FCC to be disbursed to schools and libraries to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and internet-connected devices that can be loaned to students and patrons. 

The FCC has taken some action to help amid the crisis. For instance, it's encouraged companies with unused spectrum to lease their airwaves to providers that can use it to boost capacity during the crisis. In March the agency approved requests from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to lease unused spectrum from satellite TV provider Dish to boost network capacity during times of congestion.

The agency also temporarily waived E-Rate and Rural Health Care gift rules to allow greater access to Wi-Fi at these community anchor institutions. With the rules waived, service providers can donate equipment like Wi-Fi hotspots to schools and libraries, which they can then distribute throughout the community, or offer free service upgrades to hospitals, schools and libraries getting these subsidies. Current rules prohibit hospitals in the Rural Health Care program or schools and libraries participating in the E-Rate program, which get subsidies, to accept or seek anything of value from a service provider participating in the program. 

In addition, the FCC started the Keep Americans Connected Pledge to encourage broadband and wireless providers to open up access to all during the COVID-19 crisis and keep customers on despite economic hardships. More than 700 broadband providers have signed on, including giants such as AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Cox and Verizon. 

But others in Congress, like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, said the FCC should be doing more to ensure that the 770,000 people in his state who aren't connected have a way to get online. 

"While I applaud a number of the steps the commission has taken to improve service and widen access ... I encourage you to take action that can enable expanded coverage now," he said in a letter he sent to the agency last week. 

Specifically, Warner says he wants the FCC to make it easier for wireless internet service providers in rural areas to reach more customers. And he wants the agency to relax rules to allow anchor institutions like schools and libraries that receive E-Rate funds to use their connections as backhaul for fixed wireless broadband service.  

Private industry steps in to help

Broadband providers are taking measures to help get people online. In addition to signing the FCC pledge, Comcast, which already offered the $10 a month Internet Essentials program in its coverage areas, is now offering the service to low-income families for free for 60 days. The company also waived fees and increased bandwidth caps on the service available through Internet Essentials. 

Other cable providers, such as AlticeUSA, Spectrum and Charter, are also offering free broadband for the first 60 days. But after that, the cost goes up to more than $50 a month if service isn't canceled. Also, many of these services aren't available to families that have an outstanding balance on a bill or have subscribed to a service with the company within the past 90 days. 

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Arne Duncan, who served as secretary of education under President Barack Obama, criticized these policies in an op-ed published in the Washington Post this week. He urged the FCC to ask internet providers to waive these requirements during the crisis .

"The fine print in many Internet service providers' offers excludes those who enrolled within certain time frames or had debt histories with the company or other issues," he said. "The result is that too many of the poorest families still fail to qualify for the free Internet programs supposedly designed for them."

Wireless providers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have also signed the FCC pledge and opened up their public Wi-Fi hotspots for free, promising not to terminate service if subscribers can't pay. They've also agreed to waive late fees. Additionally, AT&T is offering its home internet customers $10 a month service through its Access from AT&T for students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program and Head Start.

T-Mobile is offering existing customers up to 5GB of LTE data for two months at no additional cost. And all T-Mobile postpaid and Metro prepaid customers on plans with the HotSpot data service can add 10GB of data per month for the next two months at no additional charge. It's available for 60 days from the day you add the feature to your account.  

Verizon is offering additional data at no additional cost to all its wireless customers through the end of May, and the company is also offering reduced pricing on its Fios service through the FCC Lifeline subsidy program. 

Rosa, the New York public school teacher, said the Department of Education has put together a list of possible providers throughout the city, which she shares with families. But it's up to them to make the call, and she says many have been frustrated.

"I feel like every time I talk to a parent, I hear about a different issue," she said. "Some services are too slow. Others only allow access for an hour at a time. Some can't get service at all."  

And she added, the clock is ticking. "It's been more than a month. School's almost done for the year. What then?"