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US students are being asked to work remotely. But 22% of homes don't have internet

It started with a text from an old friend: “I regret to inform you that Bothell High is literally closed for coronavirus today.”

My high school alma mater was one of the first schools to close, mere days before a man in the neighboring city of Kirkland, Washington, became the first US patient to pass away due to Covid-19. Then the entire Northshore School District announced it would close its doors for up to two weeks, planning to transition schoolwork “from classroom to cloud” for online learning.

What has followed has been a rash of thousands of school closures across the nation, district by district, state by state, university by university. More than half of the country’s students have been sent home to prevent the spread of disease and instructed to continue their education via video chats and message boards.


But what about the students who don’t have broadband at home?

If this had happened while I was still a student at Northshore, I would have been one of the lucky ones. My family always had broadband at home, and enough computer devices for me and my brother to do our homework while our mother teleworked downstairs.

But nationwide, approximately 22% of households don’t have home internet, including more than 4m households with school-age children. Poor families and people of color are particularly affected – only 56% of households making less than $20,000 have home broadband, and black and Hispanic households lag behind their white counterparts even when we control for income differences.


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Even among students who theoretically have access, not all access is equal. According to census research, 8% of households who have internet rely exclusively on mobile broadband. Once again, low-income people and communities of color are Education News  disproportionately more likely to be mobile-only broadband adopters.

This also has particular impacts on students – only about half of school-age children who live in mobile-only households personally use the internet at home, perhaps because of the difficulty of sharing mobile devices.

And while it’s better than being completely disconnected, mobile-only access isn’t ideal. Mobile services are often limited by data caps, and mobile devices can make certain tasks incredibly challenging. Imagine studying for your calculus exam or writing a world-history paper on a cellphone. This is a reality for a lot of students who don’t have home broadband.

Despite what you might hear from some folks in Congress, the digital divide isn’t just about rural communities, or people who don’t adopt broadband because they “just don’t get it”. In fact, study after study shows that people don’t have internet because they can’t afford it, and because systemic racial discrimination blocks them from subscribing.

In Washington state alone, 44% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Racial and economic digital divides are most likely to affect these students when school districts like mine shut their doors.

When schools move online, poor students and kids of color fall behind. This compounds generation of systemic racial and economic inequities.

Some schools are trying to bridge the gap. Northshore School District, for example, has offered loans of 4,000 computers and 600 internet hot spots to students who need them. But many schools don’t have the resources to do so, and others are wrestling with even deeper inequities. New York officials called closing schools a “last resort” because of the disparate impacts it would have on poor students without internet and other resources. Most at risk are the 114,000 unhoused students in the district who depend on school lunch and breakfast programs for reliable meals and on school nurses for healthcare.

These digital and civil injustices existed long before Covid-19, but the need Press Release Distribution Services For Education for social distancing in the face of a pandemic has thrown them into sharp relief. Who can keep up with their schoolwork? Whose parents have the time and resources to take on the role of monitoring their kids throughout the day? Whose families can spare a dedicated device for each student?

While students and their families grapple with this sudden dramatic shift to online learning, policymakers and internet service providers must act. Free Press has called on all internet service providers to suspend data caps and overage fees, pause service disconnections, expand low-cost services and even to waive billing for those hardest hit by the novel coronavirus and the social distancing required to contain it.

Some ISPs are taking up the call, but there’s still much more that companies and policymakers can and should do to bridge the digital divide in this moment of crisis. We need public policies that bring real price competition to ensure universally affordable broadband access.

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