In Los Angeles, special education teacher Jaime Lozano strives to keep the attention of his elementary students during online classes.
But no matter the charisma he brings to the screen, it's no match for glitchy internet connections. Every day, about a third of his students experience an outage that cuts into their learning time, Lozano said. Nearly all of his students are from low-income families, and many can't afford wired, broadband service.
"The system goes down, or someone is working on a tower, or there's too many people on the Wi-Fi hotspot and it cuts out," Lozano said.
Since schools shut down in spring, districts have scrambled to distribute laptops and internet so students can engage in schooling from home. But almost a year later, with no end in sight for virtual learning, millions of students still lack reliably fast internet or a working computer — the basic tools to participate in live lessons from home.
The digital divide is complicated to solve. The cost of broadband is out of reach for many families. High-speed internet lines are scarce in rural areas. And there's little good and consistent data on the extent of internet connectivity — something the federal government could have taken the lead on years ago but didn't.
As for computers, many low-income students only got them halfway through the year, further slowing their learning. Or the district-supplied devices are starting to break down and there's not enough IT support, advocates for disadvantaged families say.
As of December, at least 11 of the 25 largest districts in the U.S. were still distributing devices or internet to students or could not define the extent of lingering connectivity needs, a USA TODAY survey showed.
The problem is greatest among the lowest-income students, who also are most likely to be learning online.
"Kids without internet access are more likely to suffer and not even be in contact with their teachers," said Laura Stelitano, an associate policy researcher for RAND Corp., a global research firm that has studied the issue.
Who is to blame?
About two-thirds of U.S. public-school students are doing at least some of their classes from home, according to Burbio, a company tracking school districts' reopening plans, even as President Joe Biden’s administration pushes to reopen schools for in-person learning.
Yet more than more than 157 million people were not using the internet at broadband speeds as of 2019, according to tech-giant Microsoft. While access is a bigger problem in rural areas, cost is an issue for low-income families everywhere. Broadband service can cost up to $349.95 a month in California and up to $299.95 in parts of Alaska, Kentucky, and Virginia, according to data from BroadbandNow.com.
No law requires internet providers to run infrastructure to all families’ homes to give them the option of subscribing. Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission have spent years paying companies to run some of this infrastructure to rural areas, mitigating the issue but never completely fixing it.
And the federal government has never really known for sure how extensive the problem is because the FCC has spent years collecting data that underestimates how many people lack broadband, leaving the best estimates to private companies like Microsoft or other nonprofit groups that work with schools.
Online learning during the pandemic has exposed the extent of internet access disparities among students, said Jessica Denson, a spokeswoman for a group called Connected Nation that has spent 20 years working on connectivity issues.
"We didn’t really have true numbers of what this looked like," she said. "It’s like saying, ‘I want to paint my house, but I don’t really know the full square footage of it.’ To truly do it right, we need a nationwide effort that’s focused on this problem.”
An estimated 3 million to 4 million students have received at-home internet access since the pandemic started — chipping away at the 10 million to 16 million students who lacked internet before schools shut down. Those guesses come from EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that brings broadband internet into schools, and also a new report from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on media and children.
The first COVID-19 relief package that went through Congress in the spring did not allocate money to fix the homework gap. The most recent $900 billion relief package passed in December includes up to $50 a month for low-income families to pay for broadband, but that amount falls short for the neediest children, say experts who followed the negotiations.
"The package will help low-income families maintain their existing internet subscriptions, but it’s not targeted toward kids who are completely disconnected, at a time when we have the most remote learning going on around the country," said John Bailey, an adviser to the Walton Family Foundation and its philanthropy in education.
"This is a collective failure of Congress and the administration."
Differing views on tech gaps
In some cities, schools say they've met the vast majority of device and internet needs — even while teachers and parents disagree.
Los Angeles Unified distributed about 400,000 devices and all students have computers and internet now, officials told USA TODAY in December.
But that same month, more than half of Los Angeles teachers reported students' lack of high-speed internet was a serious obstacle to their learning, according to a survey by the University of Southern California and Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group.
Sometimes districts don't ask families the right questions about their needs, said Vikki Katz, a communications professor at Rutgers University.
“It's not enough, especially in a low-income district, to ask, ‘Do you have internet access? Do you have a computer?’” she said. “Because the answer to those questions could be 'yes' today and not 'yes' tomorrow.”
Those questions must be more specific, Katz said.
'"Do you have internet access that's fast enough for the things you need? How many times has that connection been disconnected in the last 12 months?'"
More students need broadband
Many schools view the Wi-Fi hotspots they distributed as an adequate cure, but it's more like a Band-Aid, experts say. A hotspot doesn't have the same power as a broadband connection. And that can shut out students from more rigorous or engaging online learning, such as joining a videoconference while uploading and downloading documents.
Class in person vs. at home:Online learners are feeling shortchanged
In Chicago, first-grade teacher DeJernet Farder said all her students have computers, but online classes are plagued by children reporting they lost their internet connection or a hotspot went out.
"We'll have to change the expectations of what they're going to learn in a year, because it's not possible to learn everything online this way," Farder said.
Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union have been battling the terms of reopening buildings for traditional K-8 students to return to in-person learning this month. But only a fraction of students are expected to return; the vast majority will continue learning remotely.
Chicago also took the novel step of asking internet service providers to check the addresses of its approximate 355,000 students to indicate who lacked high-speed internet, said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway. Households that were home to about 100,000 students did not have a wired connection, Marwell said.
About 60,000 of those students got connected through a new public-private partnership to provide free broadband. The other 40,000 may still lack high-speed internet.
"With all of the challenges our communities are facing during the pandemic, it's hard work getting families signed up for the internet, even when it's of no cost to them," said Hal Woods of Kids First Chicago, an education nonprofit that supported the broadband expansion.
Who still needs laptops?
Thousands of students only recently received tablets or laptops.
Computer shortage:5 million laptops in limbo at start of school
New York City was still in the process of shipping out 100,000 iPads in December, officials said.
Outside the city in East Ramapo, some students didn't get Chromebooks until early November. By that time, almost half of the district's 9,000 students were deemed chronically absent for not logging in.
Getting the right technology to students who move a lot has also been a challenge. New York City is facing a lawsuit for not providing Wi-Fi to students in homeless shelters.
Do grades matter anymore? Scores of students are getting F's during the pandemic
In her East Bronx middle school classes, Rosanna Perch struggles to keep everyone logged in and actively participating. The students face steep challenges: About 1 in 5 are homeless, and many are recent immigrants.
"Kids drop off and come back in a lot online, because of the internet," Perch said.
Last semester, Perch tried to administer a reading proficiency assessment remotely by texting photos of the questions to the student, who didn't have a computer.
After more than an hour, the girl dropped off the chat even though the assessment wasn't finished.
"I have to take care of my baby brother," she texted.
Recently the school secured an iPad for the girl's family, Perch said. Now the girl is one of her most engaged students.
No internet, no school in rural areas
In West Virginia, officials expected four out of five kids would be able to access lessons through reliable internet at home, after schools shut down in March.
In reality, only about half the state’s 252,000 public school students could get online. The state has scrambled to invest in Wi-Fi hotspots and public access points, but they’re no replacement for the high-speed connectivity necessary for online learning, said Clayton Burch, West Virginia's superintendent of schools.
"We have a lot of families and teachers who want that idea of virtual and remote learning to work, but connectivity is so poor, it just hasn’t," Burch said. "I don’t think we’ve made a dent in high-quality, equitable access in everyone’s home."
In Colorado, 13.6% of students in the state's most rural areas still didn't have internet this past fall. That barely budged from spring, said Rebecca Holmes of the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit that works on technical issues.
A basic broadband connection in some parts of Colorado can cost as much as $129 per month, according to data from BroadbandNow.com. In the county surrounding the city of Denver, only 65% of households are using the internet at broadband speeds, according to Microsoft data.
At Centennial School District in rural Colorado, about half of the 200 students don't have internet at home, or the service is too slow for virtual schooling, said Superintendent Toby Melster.
Centennial, like many rural schools, is offering in-person instruction. But students there still have two days of remote learning each week. Teachers reach out by phone or send paper packets to those without internet, but some students are inevitably sliding off track, Melster said.
In a normal year, just a handful of Centennial students regularly miss school. This year, about 60 are considered chronically absent because of the inability to log on.
"The minute they can't log in and be part of the class, they're missing out," Melster said.