Back-to-school looms for kids without Wi-Fi — and Congress

Pandemic fuels worries about students falling behind peers who have online learning access

Vickie Jones watches her grandson Quincy Taylor, 10, do his homework on the computer at a public library in Long Beach, Calif., in 2017. An estimated 12 million children in the United States lack high-speed internet access at home. (Scott Varley/Getty Images file photo)
Vickie Jones watches her grandson Quincy Taylor, 10, do his homework on the computer at a public library in Long Beach, Calif., in 2017. An estimated 12 million children in the United States lack high-speed internet access at home. (Scott Varley/Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:00am

When schools shut down this spring because of the coronavirus, it cut off internet access for many of the students in Pottsboro, Texas, a town of some 2,000 people that sits a little south of the Red River, which serves as the border between Oklahoma and the Lone Star State.

But though Pottsboro is small, its school problem is big and may require a solution from a big institution some 1,300 miles away — the Congress of the United States.

The rural school district has about 300 students, many of whom lack broadband infrastructure and whose families can’t afford an internet connection, according to Dianne Connery, the local library director.

“The day the schools shut down it became so obvious that what we were doing was not enough, and these kids that were already behind would be further behind,” Connery said.

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About 12 million children in the United States lack high-speed internet access at home, according to the Joint Economic Committee. That means many students are unable to attend classes conducted virtually. A survey of 849 students conducted in March and April by the nonprofit group Common Sense Media found that nearly half of teenagers had not participated in online learning.

In Grayson County, which includes Pottsboro, more than 10 percent of children live in households without internet access, according to 2018 Census Bureau data. As students are unable to complete homework assignments at home, they are stuck in the “homework gap.” The pandemic has only made their situation worse.

“Education is like building blocks,” said John Windhausen Jr., director of the nonprofit Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. “If these students aren’t able to receive a high-quality education this year, they’re going to spend next year trying to catch up and will fall behind their peers who did have online learning capabilities.”

Federal regulators and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have sought to address the problem. Congress provided $31 billion for education in the initial coronavirus relief package, including online learning grants and $13 billion for elementary schools.

But with the start of the school year looming, the clock is ticking for many school districts that have scrambled without additional help from the government. Even if schools do reopen, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that desks be 6 feet apart, which may result in kids attending on a part-time basis.

“School districts are immobilized because of lack of funds,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said on Twitter last week. 

Weingarten has called on the Senate to take up a House-passed $3.5 trillion coronavirus relief bill that would provide $5 billion to help connect students and teachers, with a focus on those without at-home internet access. The bill would also prohibit service providers from cutting access for customers unable to pay their bill because of the pandemic.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., recently introduced a separate bill to encourage more affordable broadband network build-out. The bill would use $100 billion in grants and loans to encourage network build-out and low-cost internet access. It would also authorize $5 billion for students and funding to equip school buses with Wi-Fi so they could be used as mobile hot spots in neighborhoods where many students lack internet access.

A group of Senate Democrats, led by Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, announced companion legislation to Clyburn’s bill, which was rolled into the House’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that passed the chamber, 233-188, on July 1.

However, both measures appear to be doomed in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed them as “nonsense” and “totally unserious.”

Libraries seek to fill gap

While Congress fiddles, the pandemic has scrambled efforts by libraries to serve as an access point for communities with limited internet access.

Connery has spent recent months working on grant proposals, like one that would encourage low-speed wireless network build-out for the Pottsboro area. She pointed out that wireless hot spots won’t work without the network to support them.

“The infrastructure is just not here in this rural community. … A lot of people can’t afford it,” she said.

In Los Angeles, the library system has been closed for months. That means its wireless hot spots throughout the city have been turned off, said Eva Mitnick, the system’s director of engagement and learning.

The library has partnered with the Los Angeles school district, targeting more than a dozen schools where internet subscriptions are the lowest, Mitnick said. In the next few weeks, they plan on distributing summer reading club packets at food bank drop-offs for 4,000 students — in a city with more than 100,000 school-age children.

“Four thousand doesn’t nearly hit what is out there, but they are going to be distributed in some of the neediest communities,” Mitnick said. “We wish we could do more, but that is the beginning of it.”

According to Census Bureau data, more than 200,000 children in Los Angeles County live in households with a computer but no internet connection, and more than 100,000 live in households without either.

Making matters worse, local libraries face coronavirus-related budget cuts and may lose their ability to help students, said Marijke Visser, an associate director at the American Library Association.

“The population that depended on the library before all of these stay-at-home orders has grown,” Visser said. “They still are, in many communities, the only place people can go to get free Wi-Fi access.”

September looms large

The decision to reopen school buildings in September has been made more difficult because of uncertainty surrounding a possible second wave of the coronavirus.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear released a plan to reopen schools with strict social distancing and sanitation measures. In New Jersey, the South Orange–Maplewood school district plans for a “hybrid” school year likely to involve distance learning.

Congress’ silence has only exacerbated problems with the planning process.

“If the HEROES Act fails to pass, and states and schools don’t get the support they need to reopen safely, then they’ll stay shut and the economy will stall — it’s that simple,” Weingarten said in a statement, referring to the House-passed relief bill. “There are no magic fixes.”

Republicans last week signaled readiness to begin working on a new coronavirus relief bill, with McConnell listing “kids” among the key populations the measure would seek to help. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Education, said his priority is to pass a bill that provides COVID-19 tests for schools.

“The most important thing we do to resume normalcy is to get people back to school,” Blunt told reporters. “You’re not going to do that, particularly in a residential setting, without millions of tests that people can take dozens of times.”

But it remains unclear whether Democrats, who want McConnell to take up the House-passed bill, will support a GOP effort. And with the August recess approaching, time is running out.

“Passing a bill in July is critically important for families to be able to get their broadband connections in September,” said Windhausen.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.