How Coronavirus Exposes the Extreme Internet Inequality in the United States

As the coronavirus pandemic creates an increasingly uncertain future for schools, educators across the United States are scrambling to find ways to help kids stay connected to their virtual classrooms. And the gap in internet infrastructure across the country has never been more apparent. 

Coronavirus outbreak: quarantine and school work at home. Online classes and activities to continue education at home. Lefrancq G/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With parents working from home and children attending school online, access to internet-enabled devices is more crucial than ever. As the coronavirus pandemic creates an increasingly uncertain future for schools, educators across the United States are scrambling to find ways to help kids stay connected to their virtual classrooms. And the gap in internet infrastructure across the country has never been more apparent. 

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Approximately 14 percent of households with school-aged children in the United States lack internet access, according to recent data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A portion of those households accesses the internet exclusively through smartphones or tablets, with no access to a desktop or laptop computer. And even those with computers face significant difficulties.

Some people, like Magdalene Berry of Ft. Worth, Texas, are juggling competing educational priorities. Magdalene is a student at University of the People, a tuition-free online university geared towards providing opportunities to adults who are unable to attend traditional colleges. The 35-year-old has two laptops at home, but with five children attending school online in addition to her own work and studies, the challenges her family faces are not insignificant. The broadband internet service they pay for is often not strong enough to support the family’s internet usage, so Ms. Berry often uses her smartphone for her own school work. 

Dr. Caprice Young, the National Superintendent of Learn4Life charter schools, has been working to highlight the issue of internet access equality for years. In light of the current shift to full-time remote learning, she insists that now is the time for substantive policy change. 

“The solution is pretty simple from my perspective,” she said in a telephone interview with Observer, “and that is that if you want to have the right to be a telecommunications provider in the United States of America, then you have a responsibility to make sure that there is broadband to every kid. The way that can be done is simply to give schools the right to provide free broadband to every one of the devices they give to their students… that should be free for the schools to give to their students. The FCC should mandate that.” 

Dr. Young hopes that the current situation illuminates the fact that internet access is something that all American schoolchildren need in order to receive a quality education. 

LearnForLife charter school’s remote learning desktop. Learn4Life charter schools

This spring, the New York City Department of Education spent $269 million on iPads that were then loaned out to students. Some had no devices at home, while others with laptops or tablets at home still requested to sign out a device to use exclusively for school purposes. The district also struck a deal with internet provider Spectrum to supply free internet through June to students without access. 

According to a Comptroller’s report, 29 percent of all households in New York City lack broadband internet access. Forty-four percent of New Yorkers living in poverty did not have access to the internet, compared to twenty-two percent of those living above the poverty line. When looked at through the lens of race, the statistics highlight a deeper inequality: 30 percent of black and Hispanic New Yorkers lack access, while 20 percent of white and 22 percent of Asian residents go without reliable internet at home. 

“What the districts are telling us is that families with fewer resources are definitely seeing lower engagement,” said Lynette Guastaferro, CEO of Teaching Matters, a New York City-based non-profit that provides educator support for K-12 teachers in low-income areas. After COVID-19 forced the city’s schools to migrate online, she and her team of 50 focused their efforts on helping teachers access student-facing activities that aligned with the remote curriculum. The biggest challenge, she said, has been engagement. 

“It really shines a light on the equity gap in terms of this city, because in some families every kid has a laptop. For other families, they may have one laptop that they share with everybody, and mom’s working,” Guastaferro said.

While the NYC DOE’s plan was a step in the right direction, it still failed to account for the unique needs of the most vulnerable students, who often have unstable housing situations. For those students, mobile hotspots are the next best option. 

Organizations across the country that serve resource-challenged student populations are getting creative in their endeavors to ensure internet access for all of their students. Learn4Life schools are using a combination of video conferencing, phone calls, and even text messaging to keep students connected to their classrooms. 

“Even kids who have no internet access at home often have smartphones,” said Dr. Young, “We’ve been able to give them books and packets of homework, and if they have a problem that’s causing them grief, they can take a picture of it and text it to their teacher—then they can get on the phone with their teacher and talk about it.” 

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 19: A cart is used to hold and organize school-owned laptops to be distributed to students in need for remote learning at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Providing students with every opportunity to remain engaged with their studies is critical for the Learn4Life student body. The majority of their students have been out of school for more than 0 days prior to enrollment, with 80 percent coming from low-income families, and 14 percent homeless, pregnant, or parenting. 

It’s students like these who stand to lose the most without a nationwide effort to ensure that internet access is a right, not a privilege. 

“I think the important thing is a policy change where kids get a laptop as part of being part of school and internet access is a universal right — these are things that we have to get in place if we don’t want to have this inequitable situation for the future,” said Guastaferro. 

Former educator and speaker Jaz Ampaw-Farr likens the need for internet access to other basic educational necessities. 

“I always sent a pencil home, because I never assumed that children would have pencils at home—because when I was a kid, I had nothing,” says Ampaw-Farr of her time as a primary school teacher. 

Growing up in the UK’s foster system, Ampaw-Farr knows firsthand what it’s like to try to focus on school while enduring a home life that’s less than ideal. In a phone interview with Observer, she talked about her experiences and urged educators, administrators, and lawmakers around the world to consider the long-term impacts of the current shift in the educational landscape. 

“2020 is the story we’re going to be telling for the rest of our lives. They call it Generation C, Generation COVID-19, Generation Corona. But the story you can choose to tell can be a different one. It could be Generation Creativity, Generation Courage, Generation Change,” she said.

How Coronavirus Exposes the Extreme Internet Inequality in the United States