Virtual school is in. But with a half-million NC kids without the internet access they need, how equitable is it? (Image via Shutterstock) Virtual Education
Virtual school is in. But with a half-million NC kids without the internet access they need, how equitable is it? (Image via Shutterstock)

Coronavirus has laid bare the essential nature of broadband as an affordable utility.  It’s time to get serious about solutions.

As school year 2020-21 enters its second week, one thing is crystal clear:  Access to high speed internet at home has become the determining factor in whether students have an equal opportunity to receive a quality public education.

Prior to last March, we’d obscured that fact somewhat by doing that thing schools so often do:  Putting our public schools Band-Aid over a gaping societal wound.  

We did that by providing students laptops or Chromebooks to use while in school and extra time during the school day to complete assignments for those who couldn’t do them at home.

But when schools abruptly closed in the face of an advancing pandemic and teachers were forced to move their classes online, the impact of systemic poverty came into sharper focus.  Thousands of students across the state were unable to engage in remote learning due to not having reliable internet at home.  

North Carolina’s Constitution holds that “the people have a right to the privilege of education” and that “equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”  Those rights presumably still exist during a pandemic.

Faced with the fact that schools were unable to guarantee equitable access to education, the State Board of Education approved a plan to largely eliminate grades after mid-March, with representatives of the Department of Public Instruction saying the approach would “reduce harm” after COVID had highlighted inequalities.

Grades are back for the new school year, but have we done enough to solve the access problem? 

Meeting our constitutional obligation?

North Carolina’s Constitution holds that “the people have a right to the privilege of education” and that “equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”  Those rights presumably still exist during a pandemic.

As EdNC reported in June, 93% of North Carolinians live in an area with available internet at speeds of 25mbps or greater.  That means thousands live in areas where networks don’t reach, but it’s still good enough for a broadband deployment rank of ninth in the US (tied with Florida for first in the southeast).

The digital divide in our state comes not so much from availability as it does from the inability of families to pay the high monthly cost of internet service.  According to North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, as many as half a million students in our state “do not have the access they need to high speed internet.”  

A 2017 homework gap study by that office in conjunction with NC State’s Friday Institute found, unsurprisingly, that access was closely correlated with income and education level. And 67% of respondents to a survey indicated cost was the primary reason they went without broadband. 

Another study done by the Benton Foundation determined that $10/month was the price point at which many families would be able to afford to pay for service.

The average cost in Charlotte is right around $50/month, but with taxes and fees the actual price tag is much higher.  Companies like Spectrum offer reduced cost packages to eligible low-income families, but speeds are insufficient when multiple family members are trying to stream live classes at the same time. 

As COVID continues its rampant spread across our state and country, all of North Carolina’s K-12 public school students have begun the school year with at least part of their learning occurring from home.  Roughly half of the state’s districts have opted for fully remote learning, unable to ensure they’d be able to provide a virus-free learning environment for students and staff.

Unfortunately, the lack of overall progress toward ensuring equal access to virtual instruction for school year 2020-21 has left schools in the position of having to develop Band-aids again.

Many districts are soliciting donations from the public or from local businesses to purchase hotspots, a solution which also requires figuring out how to pay ongoing service costs.  

In Cumberland County, there are dozens of school buses parked in locations spread around the county functioning as internet hubs. Wifi signals have reportedly been spotty, and it’s a solution that requires families to have transportation.

In some counties such as Caswell, students are given flash drives with assignments loaded on them to take home.  They are expected to save their work to the drive, then swap the flash drive for one with new assignments when they’re done.

In others, teachers are printing paper packets and either having students come and pick them up or arranging home delivery by school staff in the event that it’s needed.  

These approaches to jumping over the digital divide demonstrate commitment and creativity, but they also point to the need for a decent bridge–something no school district or even state has the resources to build.

If we’re serious about ensuring that socioeconomic status doesn’t determine access to education, we need federal solutions.

A 2017 FCC report entitled “Improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure” found that federal investment of $80 billion would extend access to the 14% of United States residents still living in areas without broadband access.  

In terms of removing the obstacle of high monthly service costs, we need federal subsidies to encourage internet service providers to expand low-income programs with decent speeds.  Making tax breaks or federal support for infrastructure expansion contingent on such programs would increase participation by those businesses.

In the absence of a vaccine, there is still no real light at the end of the COVID tunnel, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that this pandemic is going to have permanent impacts on life in the United States.  

One lasting change must be our acknowledgement of the intersection between our society’s educational obligations to its people and the need for real solutions to the digital divide.

It’s time to move past Band-Aids and build a bridge.