Covid-19, Schools and the Digital Divide

Photograph Source: MusikAnimal – CC BY-SA 4.0 On November 19th, Mayor Bill de Blasio closed New York’s public schools. He has been joined by other mayors and education…

Photograph Source: MusikAnimal – CC BY-SA 4.0

On November 19th, Mayor Bill de Blasio closed New York’s public schools. He has been joined by other mayors and education officials throughout the country struggle over whether to keep their local schools open for in-class or offer only remote learning. The Covid-19 pandemic has entered yet another wave and, as of mid-November, over 11 million people have been infected and nearly 250,000 have died.

While initially limited to the east coast, especially the New York metropolitan area, the pandemic has now spread throughout the country, especially to Texas, Florida and mid-west states. And more governors and mayors are moving aggressively to contain the pandemic’s spread through requirements for citizens to wear masks, social distancing and closings of bars, restaurants and churches.

During the pandemic’s first wave in the spring, schools were closed to contain its spread. In the summer, debate about a fall reopening galvanized political debate throughout the country. On July 6th, Pres. Donald Trump tweeted, “Schools must open in the fall!!!” A month later, on July 7th, in a warning to Democratic governors, he announced, “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”

While governors and mayors throughout the county moved to open schools for the fall semester, many raised serious concerns about the health consequences of a premature opening. In addition, many did not want the president to tell them what to do and unions, workers’ rights groups and parent organizations initially come out against forced school openings.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American School Superintendents Association, laid out the problem facing schools. “The reality is that probably the majority of school districts, and there are more than 13,000 of them, don’t have the ability to provide continuous virtual online instruction,” he reported. “This experience may accelerate virtual learning in schools, but right now it is definitely inequitable for students without internet access or a computer at home, and inequitable for the special-education population,” he warned.

Making matters worse, school-age kids without internet access at home had previously used libraries, community centers and restaurants for Wi-Fi access, but in efforts to contain the pandemic many of these venues closed.

The pandemic’s effect can be most graphically seen in New York. In April during the first wave of the pandemic, the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York (CCC) reported that an estimated 500,000 city households – of the 3.3 million – lack internet access. It estimated that more than 800,000 New Yorkers lived in households without internet access, including over 150,000 school-age kids; the city has 1.1 million students.

CCC warned that “digital inequities are preventing the city’s most vulnerable populations from accessing financial and food supports, education, and needed health and behavioral health services in this time of crisis.” Lacking Internet access was greatest in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty (earning below $20,000 annually) like Borough’s Park and Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

To cope with “digital inequities,” New York education officials reported that they received 175,000 computing devices (i.e., computers and tablets), and Apple and T-Mobile are providing 300,000 students with LTE-enabled iPads; Apple is partnering with IBM to enable Internet connectivity.

Many school systems in other cities faced similar inequities and have secured support for computing devices from tech companies and non-profit groups. For example, in Houston, Chicago and Dallas, HP provided equipment. Detroit received 50,000 tablet-style laptops with internet connectivity from a coalition of business leaders and nonprofits. Indianapolis used federal stimulus money mostly to pay for 21,000 new devices and up to 9,000 WiFi hotspots. And in Colorado, Minnesota and Ohio, PCs for People worked to get computers to kids and families in need. Ted Dwyer, Pittsburgh’s chief accountability officer, declared, “The demand has been crazy. Getting a

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Often overlooked in considering schooling during the pandemic is the capabilities of the telecommunications system in meeting students educational and social needs. The coronavirus reveals what many Americans have known for a long time — the U.S. has become a second-tier communications country. A July 2019 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 15th of the 34 OECD countries in terms of broadband usage. The country’s position is pretty bleak per data rate. For mobile, it didn’t make the top 25 countries assessed; for fixed broadband, it ranked 11th at 130.9 Mbps – Singapore ranked first at 200.12 Mbps.

Compounding this picture, Americans pay more for inferior services. A 2019 report in Forbes assessed 6,313 mobile data plans in 230 countries and found that Americans pay the most for a gigabyte of data. Fees ranged from $0.26 in India and $0.27 in Kyrgyzstan to $6.66 in the United Kingdom and $6.96 in Germany. Costs in North America were the highest, averaging $12.02 in Canada and $12.38 in the U.S.

The pandemic led to a significant increase in telecom usage due to the enormous increase in in-home schooling and work-from-home (WFH). Microsoft Azure cloud computing service reports a 775 percent increase in usage in regions “that have enforced social distancing or shelter in place orders.” CTIA, a wireless trade association, reports that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular saw wireless data traffic increased during the first wave by 9.2 percent and wireless voice traffic was up 24.3 percent. In addition, USTelecom, a wireline trade group, finds that total network traffic increased by an average of 25.5 percent.

This situation is compounded by the fact that, according to the FCC, in 2019 an estimated 21 million Americans didn’t have home access to broadband. However, as John Kahan, Microsoft chief data analytics officer, warned that the FCC estimates were “vastly undercounts.” He noted that Microsoft data indicate that almost 163 million people “are not using the internet at broadband speeds.” Former FCC attorney Gigi Sohn estimated that some 141 million people in the U.S. lack access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps, the FCC’s broadband standard.

A recent report by Common Sense Media finds that “approximately 15 million to 16 million K-12 public school students, or 30% of all public K-12 students, live in households either without an internet connection or device adequate for distance learning at home …” It also finds that “300,000 to 400,000 K-12 teachers live in households without adequate internet connectivity, roughly 10 percent of all public school teachers, and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide separating urban and suburban America from small-town and rural America. The difference is most pronounced in rural communities with significant Black, Latinx and Native American households. According to Common Sense Media, ”while 18 percent of White households lack broadband, 26 percent of Latinx, 30 percent of Black, and 35 percent of Native American student households lack adequate home internet access.” It goes further, arguing: “In rural communities, 37 percent of students are without a home broadband connection compared to 25 percent in suburban households and 21 percent in urban area.”

In addition to the lack of connectivity, many poorer families with children tend to be dependent on smartphones – as distinguished from internet-enabled devices (e.g., desktop or laptop PCs or tablets) to get online. In addition, an increasing number of hospitals and medical centers are relying on telemedicine to safely screen and treat patients (especially with Corvis-19) and the lack of Internet connectivity will restrict remote services. Making matters worse, data caps on broadband services are forcing low-income subscribers to ration online access. BroadbandNow finds that among the 200 U.S. cities it tracks 44 percent experienced “some degree of network degradation” and 13.5 percent recorded speed dips of 20 percent or greater.

On March 13, 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread throughout the country, the FCC introduced “Keep Americans Connected,” a voluntary 60-day pledge by telecom companies to prevent a host of potential abuses. The possible abuses ranged from termination of service for residential or small business customers; closing access to public Wi-Fi hotspots; the imposition of late fees and data caps as well as long-distance and overage fees; and restricting connectivity to health care providers and hospitals. Among telecoms signing on were AT&T, Charter, CenturyLink, Comcast, Cox, Sonic, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. For example, AT&T announced a plan for unlimited cellular data service to school-issued tablets, 4G LTE-enabled laptops and hotspot devices.

When the telecom industry’s 60-day pledge ended, the pandemic didn’t. The policy of shelter-in-place to contain coronavirus led to a significant increase in broadband usage. To help off-set the telecom access problems, the FCC maintained its Lifeline program that provides a $9.25 monthly subsidy for wireless or landline telephone service, or broadband or bundled service. In recent weeks, many internet service providers have begun offering free or discounted access to Wi-Fi for a few months.

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In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and, the following year, formed the Bell Telephone Company. In 1885, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) was incorporated as a subsidiary of Bell Tel to build and operate the first long-distance telephone network. In 1899, AT&T bought Bell’s assets and became the parent company of the entire Bell system. AT&T operated as a monopoly until 1984 when, following the settlement of a Justice Department civil antitrust suit, it was split into seven regional operating companied, dubbed “Baby Bells.” AT&T kept Bell Labs, telephone equipment manufacturer Western Electric and long-distance service; the regionals got the Yellow Pages and local service. In ’95, it formally restructured.

In 1996, Pres. Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, arguing it would “promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities.” He insisted, “it will protect consumers by regulating the remaining monopolies for a time and by providing a roadmap for deregulation in the future.” Now, nearly a quarter-century later, telecommunications consolidation is reaching monopolistic proportions. How did this happen?

In 2000, the former FCC chairman, William Kennard (1997-2001), stated:

“Regulatory capitalism is when companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service …. Regulatory capitalists would rather litigate than innovate.” He added, “It’s always easier to prowl the halls of Congress than compete in the rough and tumble of the marketplace.”

This perception was clarified by Norm Alster, author of “Captured Agency: How the Federal Communications Commission Is Dominated by the Industries It Presumably Regulates.” He argued, “Industry controls the FCC through a soup-to-nuts stranglehold that extends from its well-placed campaign spending in Congress through its control of the FCC‘s Congressional oversight committees to its persistent agency lobbying.”

Today, the telecom industry is dominated by a handful of huge conglomerates. In 2019, the top three telecom providers had total revenues of nearly $400 billion. It breaks down as follows – (i) AT&T ($181.2 billion); (ii) Verizon ($131.8 bil); and (iii) T-Mobile/Sprint ($78.6 bil). Together, these conglomerates forged the “telecom trust.”

The telecom trust controls not only the “pipes” — the wire and the wireless networks – that link the nation’s homes, businesses, schools and people. It increasingly controls the “media” content creation companies as well. The combined influence of the telecom/media trust on American society has reached the level of the great trusts of a century ago.

Equally revealing, the telecom companies, in collusion with the FCC, are pushing the adoption of “5G” wireless technology. “5G” stands for “Fifth Generation” and is based on utilizing higher-frequency radio bands — 3.5 GHz (gigahertz) to 26 GHz and beyond – that offer greater signal capacity. However, to be deployed, the system requires the installation of greater number of cell transmitters and receivers that are located closer to the ground and to a customer’s home. This effort is but the latest move to not only remove all regulations and allow private companies to take over state utility wired networks but provide Americans with a second-rate – as possible

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When the 2020 school year began, Trump revised his early warning to school system that, if they failed to open as scheduled, they would lose federal financial assistance. However, on July 23rd, in response to the surge in Covid-19 throughout the country, he stated, “Teachers are essential workers.” And he added, “But every district should be actively making preparations to reopen.”

In early October, as Covid-19 outbreaks erupted in Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the closing of some in-person classes. In response, Trump denounced Cuomo: “Well, they’re trying to hurt the economy as much as possible — the Democrats — they wanted Nov. 3 because this way they figured the economy would hurt a little bit and my numbers won’t be as good,” the president said of his rival party in his home state.” He went on to add: “What’s happened in New York is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen happen to a city.”

Before his provisional election as president, Joe Biden issued a position paper, “Roadmap to Reopening Schools Safely,” that noted “the challenge facing our schools is unprecedented. Pres. Trump has made it much worse.” He laid out a 5-point plan “to support local decision-making on reopening schools safely and to help students whose learning was interrupted.” How Biden will act on the issue of Covid, schools and the digital divide when president remains to be seen.

When the Covid-19 pandemic is finally contained, a day of reckoning over the various failures of the American social system will likely come. The call for a Medicare for All plan may well gain political support in the face of the failure of the private insurance model tied to one’s employment. In a similar spirit, schools will be open once again but with the essential broadband internet access and appropriate computer equipment to permit quality in-school and in-home education. One can also anticipate an increasing number of localities will offer municipally owned broadband services and aggressively push a campaign to close the digital divide.


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