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WASHINGTON — Gina Garro didn’t even get to tell her students goodbye.
Like many schools rushing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Garfield Elementary in Revere abruptly shut its doors late one afternoon, with little plan for how teachers would continue their lessons online. As two weeks turned into three, Garro, who co-teaches special education classes, attempted to video chat with her kindergartners and first-graders. But she worried not all of their parents had computers or knew how to use the Internet.
She was right. Out of her 24 students, only eight to 10 have ever logged on.
“The fear is that those kids are moving along, have the support to move along, and those kids who we can’t really reach are going to fall further behind,” she said.
For years, tech advocates and digital inclusion groups have sought to draw attention to the harmful rift between those with the means and skills to go online and those without. But the coronavirus pandemic has cast the digital divide into sharp relief, underscoring just how essential the Internet has become.
Doctors are struggling to communicate with the sick in rural communities where there are no broadband services. Counselors have lost touch with mental health and rehab patients without laptops or other devices. Many seniors can’t communicate with their grandchildren or have their groceries delivered or their prescriptions filled because they lack Internet access.
Nowhere has the digital divide been more acutely felt than in education after the outbreak forced schools to suddenly move classes and coursework online. Now, as congressional leaders begin to craft the next coronavirus rescue package, some lawmakers want to ensure federal dollars are dedicated to closing the gap.
“Every family should have access to broadband at home, every small business should have access to it,” Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey said. “It is that indispensable.”
He and other congressional Democrats want the next rescue bill to include funding for broadband wiring as part of infrastructure projects, as well as to expand a little-known program created under the 1996 Telecommunications Act that Markey played a major role in shaping.
Dubbed “E-rate,” the initiative provides discounts of up to 90 percent on Internet costs for rural and low-income schools and libraries, is financed through small surcharges on consumers’ monthly bills and capped at a total of $4 billion. Under a new proposal, Congress would allow the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, to change its rules to free up $2 billion to provide hot spots and Wi-Fi devices to students to take home.
But the Republican-controlled Senate stripped a similar E-rate proposal from the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package enacted late last month. And FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has refused to use the agency’s emergency powers to waive E-rate rules, saying it doesn’t have the authority to subsidize hot spots or enable home Internet access.
Internet advocacy groups and leaders of at least 20 national school board and teacher associations have written to Congress in support of the E-rate expansion, including some organizations that previously opposed any move that could channel funds away from schools and libraries. But that was before the coronavirus outbreak drastically increased the scope of the problem.
“It saddens me that it took a pandemic for people to step back to have everyone talk about access,” said Dan Noyes of Tech Goes Home, which offers laptops and digital literacy classes to schools, homeless shelters, and other partners across Massachusetts. “If 30 percent of the city didn’t have clean water or had no electricity, this would be the biggest story ever.”
The FCC last year estimated that only about 7 percent of Americans do not have access to broadband. But the actual number of people who remain unconnected or struggle to go online is likely much higher because the FCC bases its count on information reported by Internet providers and telecommunication companies. The figure also doesn’t capture the number of people with lagging Internet speed, or those who are only able to surf the web using their smartphones.
As schools shut down because of the pandemic, those inequities became glaring. Rural areas and low-income neighborhoods, even those in the richest and tech-oriented cities like Boston and San Francisco, have been the hardest hit. Black, Latino, and tribal communities have been disproportionately affected.
Melissa Campbell, a teacher in Pittsfield — the largest city in the Berkshires with about 45,000 residents — said some of her students have unsuccessfully tried to complete online assignments on their cellphones. Classes she has hosted on Google Hangouts drew only about 30 of 115 of her eighth-graders, and there are at least 30 students she has not been able to communicate with at all.
“They don’t have Internet, they don’t have a computer, they don’t even have a phone,” she said.
Even before the pandemic, about 15 percent of students struggled with the “homework gap” — a lack of high-speed Internet at home that makes it difficult to complete assignments, according to a Pew study of 2015 US Census data, the most recent available.
In Massachusetts, which has made strides in recent years to expand Internet access, 49,000 children under 18 still do not have service at home and more than 14,000 lack a computer at home, according to 2015 Census figures. The digital inequities remain so stark that education officials have moved away from the phrase “online learning” and now call it “remote learning.”
In Greater Boston, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has partnered with public television to provide educational programming. The town of Barnstable has been using Wi-Fi-connected school buses to serve some neighborhoods. Other schools have resorted to delivering thick course packets with math, reading, and science assignments to students.
Malden Mayor Gary Christenson said school officials there did not adopt an online curriculum until they had sanitized and distributed 750 Chromebook laptops to families who needed them. “We wanted to make sure every student had the opportunity to learn, not just the tech-savvy students that have all the bandwidth they need,” he said.
At Garfield in Revere, where most students are on free or reduced lunch, Garro and other teachers drew up a series of activities that students could complete at home on their computers, mostly math equations and reading prompts that they hoped would keep their minds active to avoid the kind of slump that tends to creep in over summer.
She did not believe distributing Chromebooks was enough. “If you are giving people books and they don’t know how to read, it is just not helpful,” she said.
The $2 trillion rescue package included $30.7 billion for schools across the country, some of which could be used to buy computer hardware or cover Internet connection costs. Other funds were earmarked to expand telehealth for patients and to help museums and libraries expand their digital networks. But the bill has no dedicated fund to help schools provide online learning.
Teachers, school officials, and school association leaders said expanding the E-rate program could provide some immediate relief, particularly if the crisis stretches into the fall. But education and tech advocates hope the congressional measures go beyond that to include projects to install more fiber optic cables. The push has revived the controversial question of whether the Internet should be treated like a utility, something large providers strongly oppose.
An FCC spokesperson said Pai is talking with lawmakers about the E-rate proposal. He also has asked Internet providers to sign a pledge to waive late fees, expand hot spots, and not terminate service for people who can’t pay their bills.
“I’m committed to using every legal means at the FCC’s disposal to help Americans deal with the coronavirus pandemic,” Pai wrote in a Medium post. But it’s unlikely the agency will step up regulation anytime soon.
Angelina Hidalgo, who works as a school lunch monitor at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School in Dorchester, said she felt luckier than other parents. She has broadband at home and picked up online skills through Tech Goes Home classes that have helped her communicate with teachers and check in on her 58-year-old mother, who has been fighting coronavirus in the hospital for weeks.
On a Chromebook received from the school amid the pandemic, she and her 5-year-old daughter, Angelys, tuned in to greet her teacher Wednesday from their Mattapan home as the little girl bubbled with excitement after days of missing her friends.
“I think most people are going to realize that it’s important to have in life,” Hidalgo said of the Internet.