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Millions of students with limited broadband access at risk of falling behind amid COVID-19

During the pandemic, the federal government has tried to boost access to broadband internet. The Cares Act provided $150 billion to state and local governments, which many used to help extend connectivity, and the most recent stimulus package gave $7 billion in broadband funding. Yet many children in the U.S. still can’t connect for class. John Yang reports as part of our "Race Matters" series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, during the pandemic, the federal government has given billions of dollars to state and local governments to boost access to broadband Internet, yet many children in this country still can't connect for class.

    John Yang reports on the persistent digital divide.

    It's the first of two reports tonight, as part of our Race Matters series.

  • Tempra Tucker:

    So, you're not going to say she. You're going to say her. Are you going to her or are you going to say she?

  • John Yang:

    Tuesday morning, at Francis Marion School in the Central Alabama city of Marion, a handful of students are in class.

  • Tempra Tucker:

    Some information in this speech is missing.

  • John Yang:

    Officials suspended in person learning last year because of the threat of coronavirus, but many students are still here two days a week because they can't get online at home. And neither can some of their teachers.

  • Tempra Tucker:

    I would prefer to be at home, but my situation calls for me to be here.

  • John Yang:

    English teacher Tempra Tucker.

  • Tempra Tucker:

    I live in a very, very country-type area, suburban, way out in the country. So it is challenging for me. I can — especially with the Zoom, I could hear my students. They can hear me sometimes. But the connection was very, very off in the country.

  • Cathy Trimble:

    You know, it's almost like we're like Mayberry R.F.D. in 2021.

  • John Yang:

    Cathy Trimble is the principal at Francis Marion, an overwhelmingly African American pre-K-12 school; 97 percent of the students receive free-or-reduced price lunches. In 2015, the school won an Apple grant, and all 800 students received free iPads.

    Trimble says that was a great help when students were in school.

  • Cathy Trimble:

    But when you have students just going home, and it's almost like they're going out of the light into the darkness, because what it does is, it prohibits them or blocks them off from the rest of the world.

    Without the Internet, it was just like a book with no pages.

  • John Yang:

    Marion is the seat of Perry County in Central Alabama, and home to a rich civil rights history that echoes today. In February of 1965, a white state trooper killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young unarmed Black man, while Jackson was defending his mother during a voting rights demonstration.

    His murder inspired the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery that sparked the passage of the Voting Rights Act. For years, the area has struggled economically, rural, poor, and on the dark side of the digital divide.

  • Cathy Trimble:

    It's almost like we don't have a voice, because it isn't heard. And it's almost like we're out in the woods, and we're yelling and we're screaming, and because there's no one around, no one hears us.

  • John Yang:

    Francis Marion senior Fannirah Brown is one of those without a voice. Before the pandemic, she was on the dance and cheerleading squads and was a strong student. But, at home, just 10 minutes from downtown Marion, she's often unable to get online and has fallen behind in her school work.

  • Fannirah Brown:

    It takes a long time for your assignments to load, or it jump a little bit, so you won't get all the way through. Or it's going to start you all the way over.

  • John Yang:

    The pandemic has brought America's digital divide into sharp relief.

    For decades, it's been driven by both the cost of service and the lack of infrastructure. For private Internet service providers, there's often too little financial incentive to fill gaps in coverage, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas.

    And so millions of Americans, like Fannirah, are left in the digital dark. Last year, Fannirah's school used CARES Act funding to give her and her two brothers a Wi-Fi hot spot, after deploying Wi-Fi-enabled buses in poorly served neighborhoods didn't work.

  • Cathy Trimble:

    For every step that we took, we had to — in some instances, had to step back and rethink this and come up with a plan B. And now we're probably on plan C, D, E, I'm not sure where we are.

  • John Yang:

    But most days, the hot spot is unreliable, too, says Jesha Brown, Fannirah's mother, who also depends on it for telehealth visits to manage her diabetes.

  • Jesha Brown:

    It's sketchy. It will pick up real good on some days. And, some days, it drags. Or, some days, it won't pick up at all.

  • John Yang:

    And it's not strong enough for all three children to get online for remote instruction, leading to incomplete assignments, slipping scores, and a lot of frustration.

  • Jesha Brown:

    It makes me upset. It's not being able to help them, when I know that they can do their work, they know their work, and the only thing that is hindering them is the connection to the teacher.

  • Dr. Nicol Turner Lee:

    The pandemic has highlighted just how intricately related lack of broadband access is to systemic inequality.

  • John Yang:

    Nicol Turner Lee is director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Before COVID-19, she spent months traveling across the country documenting the lack of broadband access.

  • Dr. Nicol Turner Lee:

    People of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos and people from tribal lands, who are really struggling with a set of systemic inequalities, economic, socially, politically, educationally that keeps them on the outskirts of educational achievement, of employment achievement, they are really struggling by not being connected, and even more so today.

  • John Yang:

    The Federal Communications Commission estimates that nearly 14.5 million Americans lack reliable broadband access, a number that's been steadily falling.

    But many say the way the FCC counts coverage is highly inaccurate and paints an overly rosy picture. BroadbandNow, which researches connectivity across the country, estimates the number of disconnected Americans at 42 million. Microsoft says 157 million Americans, or about half the country, have slow or unreliable Internet.

  • Dr. Nicol Turner Lee:

    We're actually seeing learning losses attributed to kids that are not formally connected to any type of schooling.

    Among African American kids and Latinx kids, it's almost been upwards of a year where they will not have cognitive retention of basic skills. That is a travesty, because, in essence, what we are suggesting is sort of the regurgitation of Brown vs. Board of Education in the 1950s, where young people do not have the resources that they need to survive.

  • John Yang:

    She says, across the country, people like Cathy Trimble have been trying to address the massive problem through patchwork solutions, like mobile hot spots, Wi-Fi buses, and in school instruction for those who can't connect.

  • Dr. Nicol Turner Lee:

    They're coming up with what I consider to be Band-Aid solutions to fill blind spots that, in essence, really is reflective of the fact that we have just broken our social contract in the United States when it comes to having everyone connected.

  • John Yang:

    She and others hope that, with the pandemic and a new administration in the White House, broadband access will be thought of as part of the nation's basic infrastructure, like roads, sewers, electricity and health care.

  • Cathy Trimble:

    Until the Internet is looked upon not as a luxury, but as a need, we're going to always have these Fannirahs. We're going to always have these students, and we're going to always have this gap.

    It's unfortunate that this digital divide is dividing us in a country that is already divided. But now this — there's another means of dividing us.

  • John Yang:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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