Back-to-School help for students without internet

For millions of families, broadband access is a challenge. These resources can help bridge that digital divide.

Coronavirus and the Classroom
Coronavirus and the Classroom

For Marcy Gage, getting decent broadband service for her home has been a 15-year battle. Because of her location in rural Maine, she's had to rely on expensive-yet-spotty satellite internet because the local cable company stopped laying lines about 2,000 feet from her house.

According to Charter/Spectrum, the cost to run that extra length was $60,000, well above what Gage can afford to pay. And the special "pandemic" rate she's now getting from her satellite company concludes in September. Instead of $26 a month, she'll have to pay $75 for the same below-par service.

In the interim, she is working from home, sharing an internet connection that regularly tops out at 5 to 7Mbps with her middle-school-age son, who's about to start remote classes. "We can't both be online at the same time. And if we hit our data cap, the service gets bumped down to nearly no speed at all," she says.

For rural families like Gage's and millions more in the heart of U.S. cities, the digital divide between Americans who can easily access the internet and those who cannot is a growing concern and it's likely to increase dramatically in the weeks ahead, as U.S. students face the challenges of remote learning. 

“If it wasn’t glaringly clear before, the pandemic has confirmed the vital importance of a broadband internet connection—one that is reliable, affordable, and in some cases, simply available,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel in Consumers Reports’ Washington, D.C., office. “Unfortunately, far too many Americans—18 million, according to the FCC, and up to 42 by other accounts—lack access or are unable to afford broadband.”

Minority households are among the most affected. A new state-by-state report on America's K-12 students by Common Sense and Boston Consulting finds that while 18 percent of white households lack broadband, 26 percent of Latinx and 30 percent of Black homes with students don't have adequate access. The percentage is even higher among Native American households.

"Every school-aged child deserves an education," says John Windhausen Jr., director of the nonprofit Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. "Unfortunately, for at least the next few months, most education will take place online. Students who cannot take classes online will fall behind their peers and may be disadvantaged for many years to come."

If your family is struggling to get broadband access, there are resources that can help you bridge the gap. In the story below, we review assistance programs offered by various schools, local libraries, the federal government, internet providers, and others. To cobble together a solution, you may have to rely on a few in your area.