wifi symbol spray painted in empty parking space

Singhanart/Shutterstock (Licensed) Remix by Jason Reed

For some students, getting online means using a parking lot

The pandemic has shined a bright light on the country's digital divide and homework gap.

May 22, 2020, 4:37 pm*

Tech

Libby Cohen 

Libby Cohen

For most students, getting ready for school in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic now simply involves opening up their computer and turning on their video camera.

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However, for a sizable group of students who do not have access to the internet, the classroom—which once was filled with a teacher, other students, and desks—is now an empty parking lot close to a reachable Wi-Fi network.

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This was a reality for some Philadelphia students. The city’s school district said it wanted to designate parking lots as Wi-Fi hotspots for students without internet access. After pushback, the school district dropped the option from its list of alternatives for people.

The schools in Philadelphia are not an outlier.

Schools across the country have adapted to stay-at-home orders by transitioning to online learning. But, it’s not a viable option to students who fall on the grim side of the digital divide—the gap between those with and without high-speed internet access.

Meanwhile, other school districts are scrambling to supply students with devices to reach online schooling. One large demographic of the digital divide is known as the “homework gap,” or the estimated 12 million students that do not have internet access. And this gap has only been exacerbated by coronavirus-related school shutdowns.

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CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

From connectivity to accessibility, online learning is not working for thousands of American students.

In Baltimore, the city school district said it was lacking 14,000 power cords for take-home devices. In the New York City area, 1.5 million people don’t have home broadband or an alternative mobile connection. In California, over 200,000 students do not have internet access, according to the states’ department of education.

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In mid-May, a county in Georgia put Wi-Fi devices on buses to help students get online because the superintendent said 45% of students in the district had trouble accessing the internet at home. The district is equipping hotspots to 12 buses. Similar actions have happened in Montgomery, Alabama, and Austin, Texas.

“The remote Wi-Fi units will allow us to place those on top of our buses which will give us the opportunity to extend hot spots out into the rural area of our county,” Washington County Superintendent Rickey Edmond told WMAZ 13, a local television station.

One student in the Georgia district put it more simply, telling the news outlet: “If we had better, faster internet we’d be able to complete more.”

In the age of technology, internet connection impacts everyone. But, little-to-no internet takes a toll on students in particular because it inhibits research, collaboration, and—of course—homework.

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In 2018, the Pew Research Center found 17% of teens in households that make less than $30,000-a-year have difficulties completing their homework due to poor internet connection. In addition, it found that these homes tended to be families of color.

Now, as coronavirus pushes all students online—the homework gap is on full display.

Specifically in California, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools said about 68% of students are attending classes each day. They told CNN that they are still working to get the other 32% online.

While politicians have routinely brought up trying to close the digital divide, the homework gap has caught the eye of some senators during the coronavirus pandemic.

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A group of lawmakers is on board for including broadband funding in the next stimulus bill, with 35 of them writing a letter expressing their support for bridging the homework gap with funding.

“When it comes to building out high-speed broadband access across the state, we need to, in my view, dramatically accelerate that effort,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.

But many can’t wait until the next coronavirus relief bill is passed.

The digital divide is not just a congressional issue. It also falls on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to tighten the gap. The agency has two programs that are meant to help unconnected students called E-Rate and Lifeline. E-Rate is a $4 billion program which provides K-12 schools and libraries with subsidies to help get devices that connect people to broadband.

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Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former FCC counselor, said the program isn’t being used to its full extent.

“The FCC underspent its $4 billion budget last year by $1 billion last year,” Sohn told the Daily Dot. “It could provide the extra money to homes so kids can do their classwork. They’re not doing that. They’re arguing that it’s connectivity to the classroom and that’s not a classroom.”

Now, the FCC is asking companies to step in and provide connectivity for free in its “Keep Americans Connected” pledge. It has convinced hundreds of major broadband providers to open up Wi-Fi hotspots for customers. While the initial pledge, made in early March, was for 60 days, many major carriers extended it further before the FCC followed with its pledge.

Kathryn de Wit, manager of the Broadband Research Initiative, said Wi-Fi hotspots are just short-term plans.

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“Mobile hotspots, Wi-Fi on school buses where they’re parked in parking lots—these are all temporary solutions. They are Band-Aids that are needed to make sure kids in particular can do their school work, but it doesn’t actually solve that residential connectivity problem,” De Wit told CNN.

For the students who need Wi-Fi for homework due tomorrow, they have to resort to unconventional methods to complete their assignments. In Philadelphia, it meant going to the parking lot.

Not everyone is on board with this “Band-Aid” option.

“In a community where there are high rates of community violence, we’re asking kids to be sitting ducks with pieces of technology that people could steal from them,” one Philadelphia teacher told Billy Penn.

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Sohn is among those who say its unfair.

“The problem with Wi-Fi parking lots and Wi-Fi hot spots is that you have to go out of your house. Maybe you’re not practicing social distancing, it’s dangerous,” Sohn said. “Why should poor people who already being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, people of color, why should they have to take even more chances?”

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*First Published: May 25, 2020, 7:00 am