Internet Inequality Is A Big Deal, Especially Right Now

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Internet Inequality Is A Big Deal, Especially Right Now
Scary Mommy, Markus Spiske/ Unsplash and Julia M Cameron/Pexels

As coronavirus ravages the country, kids continue to be affected deeply. Distance learning is the new normal, and schools are expecting students to be logging into Google Classroom, Zoom, etc., for immediate learning so as not to lose any learning time.

However, when we talk about students learning at home, it’s critically important to note the number of kids without regular internet access. This lack of access puts them at a huge educational disadvantage for the rest of the school year.

It may be hard to believe in this technological era that there are people living without internet access. But, that’s a wildly privileged view, because the disparity is a very real one. Even with a school-provided laptop, if students lack internet access, they cannot complete their assignments or participate in virtual lessons.

“There are still some pretty big gaps when it comes to broadband adoption,” Pew’s associate director of research on the Internet and technology, Monica Anderson, tells The Washington Post.

Research from 2017 shows that 14% of school aged kids (K-12) don’t have access to high-speed internet in the home. Naturally, this affects low income students and students of color at a higher number. About one-third, or 35% of households with students between the ages of 6-17 making $30,000 or less don’t have that access in home. Their lack of access contributes to the “homework gap” that makes distance learning a challenge.

“With coronavirus, we’re about to expose just how challenging our digital divide is, and just how unequal access to broadband is,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission, also tells The Washington Post. “We’re going to have a reckoning.”

According to the most recent FCC data, there are 21 million Americans overall without access to high-speed internet — among these numbers, many kids who are likely to be using computers at school or at a public library.

My son’s school is a charter school operating under the Los Angeles Unified School District. About two weeks after closing due to coronavirus, the administration sent out a survey asking about the type of access kids have to the internet. This way, teachers would have the opportunity to plan for distance learning. Once the school gathered the information, they were able to come up with a plan for moving forward.

In the week before spring break, the school sent out a message to parents via app and phone. They had come up with a comprehensive distance learning plan based on the data. It would ensure all kids would be able to keep learning. For kids who don’t have regular internet access, they’re preparing physical packets for pickup. The school is allowing students with internet access to borrow a laptop from the school directly. Parents don’t have to do anything; the school will contact families directly to set everything up.

Along with their plan for the rest of the year, the school shared other helpful info. They informed parents that many internet service providers are currently offering ways to keep households online. Many are offering a 60-day waiver of charges to households with school age children to allow for distance learning success. The FCC got companies like AT&T, Verizon, and other internet providers to commit to helping keep people online — even if they’re unable to pay their bills.

“As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected,” Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, said in a statement.

Individual companies like Comcast and Charter (who operates under Spectrum) have offered specific plans to keep low income families online. Comcast said it’s expanding its low income broadband program, and will offer free high-speed internet to families for the next 60 days. Charter is doing something similar, specifically for K-12 students who lack high-speed access for distance learning purposes. Families who live in their service areas should be covered for the rest of the school year. But families who aren’t are left with minimal, if any, options.

Studio OMG/Reshot

This isn’t a new issue, but distance learning is really shining a light on how problematic this ‘digital divide’ truly is.

First of all, the mere cost of internet access is prohibitive. While many companies may have a low introductory cost for internet service, after the first year, that price often goes up. Or customers are forced into packages with services they do not need, just to get access to the internet they do need. That means that many families are priced out of these services. And now, all the places they go could to get free access (libraries, cafes, etc) are closed indefinitely.

Literal access is also an important part of the problem. In rural areas especially, students struggle with access at home. An article from Harvard points out that 39% of residents in the rural U.S. don’t have internet. According to the study, rural terrain is an issue. It’s hard for companies to run cables or put up towers, and due to the lack of population, many internet service companies don’t find it financially beneficial to build there.

Even more unacceptable: The rural broadband gap is experienced disproportionately by communities of color. A recent analysis by think tank Third Way found that nearly 75% of rural counties where most of the residents are white have broadband available, but broadband availability is almost 20% lower in rural counties where the majority of residents are African American. In fact, rural communities where the majority of the population are POC tend to have fewer provider options — or are completely unserved.

With COVID-19 forcing schools to close, now there’s no way for administrations to pretend this is not happening any more. Those in charge are finally being pressured to do something — but it’s almost too late. Any plans right now are quick fixes and do not address the larger policy issues. The Washington Post quoted FCC spokeswoman Tina Pelkey as saying they’re “exploring additional ways to help keep students and all Americans connected during the coronavirus pandemic.” That’s fine and dandy, but time is quickly running out.

As of right now, we have no idea how long distance learning will be the norm. We all hope school will be back in session come fall. But right now, that feels like a pretty big “if.” Hopefully by then, the powers that be will have had time to put together a better plan. First, they need to keep acknowledging the disparity. Then work together to make sure all children have the tools they need to learn successfully — whether we’re in the middle of a pandemic or not.

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