9 Million Students Lack Devices and Internet Connection For Virtual Learning

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About 50 million K-12 public school students have had to switch to remote learning because of the Covid-19 crisis. But a major issue that comes with “going virtual” is that 9 million of these students don’t have adequate access to the internet or the devices that they need, stated a Common Sense Media report.

Not surprisingly, one of the top reasons that families don’t have home internet access is that it’s too expensive, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics. And the Pew Research Center confirms that low-income families and communities of color are hardest hit by this digital “homework gap.”

For those families without high-speed digital access, how can parents and caregivers make sure that students are still able to get instruction and assignments, even if school is not happening in person this year? Here are some suggested work-arounds:

Find free or discounted internet access

Many internet service providers, responding to the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, are offering reduced prices for internet packages, as well as free WiFi hotspots. This publication is compiling a list of providers (and the states they operate in) that are providing free or reduced cost service to students, or are providing free public hotspots that students can access while remaining physically distanced. However, some of these “deals” require families to meet certain criteria, like being a new customer or not having any past unpaid bills to service providers, so they might not work for everyone.

Other WiFi hotspots are often found near libraries, schools, and other public buildings. One Illinois district even got creative and used school buses to serve as mobile community hotspots, so try checking with your child’s school to see what they recommend. You could use the hotspots to download the documents or information that your student needs for the day or week, then complete most of the work at home.

Learn how to use “offline” features

Make the most of your brief online time so you can do the rest offline. Google published a blog post explaining how students and teachers can make G Suite tools like Google Docs, Slides and Sheets available offline on Chromebooks with the Google Docs offline extension, along with other tips for offline learning.

Also, if they only have brief access to the internet, students can download webpages for offline viewing. (Here are instructions for doing so when using Chrome.) If they’re borrowing a device, they can save their files to a USB flash drive, and take those materials home to read or work on offline.

Request more accessible options

Let teachers know that you need options for homework and lessons that don’t require constant access to high-speed internet. For example, ask them to use plain text rather than PDFs when emailing assignments, since it requires less data to download. Or ask if you can pick up materials and printouts from a safe location—some school districts have official drop boxes for this purpose.

If your child is missing virtual class sessions or videos due to connectivity issues, request that teachers provide a text version for students to read later: one of the easiest solutions for teachers is to use the free Voice Typing tool in Google Docs to make transcripts of voice or video lessons. (To use Voice Typing in a Google doc, click Tools > Voice Typing—or press Ctrl + Shift + S in Windows or Command + Shift + S in macOs. It creates a text version as you speak.) Also, ask teachers if they can answer questions during “office hours” via a regular phone call instead of a Zoom meeting.

Some school districts have even been able to broadcast virtual lessons to local TV stations for those without internet access to watch from home, so it doesn’t hurt to ask what your options are. 

It can be quite challenging to adjust to such a tricky learning situation in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession, but by communicating with educators about your family’s particular needs, you can help make virtual schooling as accessible as possible.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.