Shekinah and Orlandria Lennon were sitting at their kitchen table this fall, taking online classes, when video of their teachers and fellow students suddenly froze on their laptop screens. The wireless antenna on the roof had stopped working, and it could not be fixed.
Desperate for a solution, their mother called five broadband companies, trying to get connections for their home in Orrum, N.C., a rural community of fewer than 100 people with no grocery store or traffic lights.
All the companies gave the same answer: Service is not available in your area.
The response is the same across broad stretches of Robeson County, N.C., a swath of small towns and rural places like Orrum dotted among soybean fields and hog farms on the South Carolina border. About 20,000 of the county’s homes, or 43 percent of all households, have no internet connection.
The technology gap has prompted teachers to upload lessons on flash drives and send them home to dozens of students every other week. Some children spend school nights crashing at more-connected relatives’ homes so they can get online for classes the next day.
“It’s not fair,” said Shekinah, 17, who, after weeks trying to stay connected to classes through her cellphone, was finally able to get online regularly again last month through a Wi-Fi hot spot provided by the school. “I don’t think just the people who live in the city should have internet. We need it in the country, too.”
Millions of American students are grappling with the same challenges, learning remotely without adequate home internet service. Even as school districts like the one in Robeson County have scrambled to provide students with laptops, many who live in low-income and rural communities continue to have difficulty logging on.
About 15 million K-12 students lived in households without adequate online connectivity in 2018, according to a study of federal data by Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit group that tracks children’s media use.
Before the coronavirus, that was mainly an obstacle for students doing homework, and it was an issue that state and federal officials struggled to address. But the pandemic turned the lack of internet connectivity into a nationwide emergency: Suddenly, millions of schoolchildren were cut off from digital learning, unable to maintain virtual “attendance” and marooned socially from their classmates.
The Trump administration has done little to expand broadband access for students, both before and during the pandemic, said James P. Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media. “There was no federal strategy, and it was left to the individual states to come up with a patchwork of solutions,” he said.
When Congress passed a coronavirus relief package in March, it provided billions of dollars for emergency education needs, but none specifically for closing the digital divide. Despite advocacy from groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Steyer said, Republican leaders in Congress blocked efforts to add such funds.
“The tragedy is this is not a Democratic or Republican problem,” Mr. Steyer said. “It is simply not fair that a poor family in a rural area or a low-income urban area does not have the resources to send their kids to school in this pandemic.”
Desperate for workarounds, schools across the country have scrambled to distribute mobile hot spots and internet-equipped iPads. Districts everywhere from Wisconsin to Kansas to Alabama have transformed idle school buses into roving Wi-Fi vehicles that park in neighborhoods so students can sit nearby and log in to classes.
In Baltimore, where a recent study found that nearly 20,000 households with school-age children lacked broadband internet or computers, the public school system is providing internet connectivity to an estimated 44,000 students, or 55 percent of the district’s total enrollment, officials said.
The challenge of closing the digital divide can be particularly daunting in states like North Carolina, home to the nation’s second-largest rural population and a geography that spans mountains, swamps and barrier islands.
About 100,000 of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students were unable to connect to online services in August, according to the Department of Information Technology. More than 75,300 cellular hot spots were provided to schools by late October, and the state is trying to connect other students with public Wi-Fi locations and community grants for broadband infrastructure.
But politics has also hampered the state’s connectivity. In 2016, Republican state lawmakers won a legal battle to halt the spread of municipal broadband providers, which had increased competition by serving residents where commercial networks had been unwilling to go.
In Orange County, which is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and just west of some of the state’s biggest cities, more than 5,200 households lack broadband internet access, including an estimated 1,100 students in the local school district, said Monique Felder, the superintendent.
She noted with frustration that the district is just a few miles away from the state’s prominent Research Triangle Park, where IBM, Cisco and dozens of other information technology companies employ thousands of people.
“It’s un-American,” said Ms. Felder, who pointed to unaffordable pricing and a lack of cell towers as having contributed to the problem. “I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we live in a place where you have all this technology, yet we have families who can’t access the internet in the comfort of their home.”
In September, the district’s school board voted to continue with remote learning for most students through the end of the semester, citing health concerns, despite Ms. Felder’s recommendation to hold a combination of in-person and online classes.
To help students connect, the district has distributed over 1,500 hot spots, often several to each family. Yellow buses outfitted with Wi-Fi regularly rumble outside apartment complexes and housing developments. And for weeks, shuttered school cafeterias, once redolent with the scent of chicken nuggets and quesadillas, functioned as internet hubs.
But with no child care provided, few parents brought their children, prompting the district to close them last month.
Today, many parents use a map of public Wi-Fi locations to help their children get online, and students can often be seen hunched over laptops in cars parked within the invisible range of wireless routers. “It just adds insult to injury when you’re forced to sit in a McDonald’s parking lot to learn,” Ms. Felder said.
For months, Ms. Felder and other local officials have been lobbying the state for systemic solutions, rather than Band-Aid fixes like hot spots. “We need cell towers and broadband,” she said. “That’s something we cannot build ourselves. We need the government to step in and make this happen.”
The strain is even more profound a two hours’ drive south in Robeson County, where coronavirus test positivity rates have consistently been more than double the state’s 5 percent benchmark for reopening, leading the school board to extend remote learning through December, a district spokesman said.
Sherry Park, the principal of South Robeson Intermediate School, said about 60 of her 310 students live in cell service “dead zones.” Every two weeks, their parents come to the school to exchange drives filled with completed schoolwork for new ones, uploaded with lesson videos and assignments.
Sharon Hunt works 12- to 14-hour days teaching eighth-grade math at the school. In a voice frayed by exhaustion, she described a grueling schedule: teaching online in an empty classroom from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., after which she returns home to spend several more hours compiling flash drive presentations before grading assignments.
Most of her students live in rural areas, and half of the students in one of her classes have no internet access. One family has to walk to the nearest crossroad to get cellphone reception. Ms. Hunt said she tried to answer their questions over the phone, but both teacher and students know it is not the same.
“You can tell in their voice that they’re struggling, but once we’ve kind of talked through some things, they sound better,” she said. “That’s all I have to go on until I get their work.”
The lack of internet access has reshaped the home lives of some students. Clarissa Breedan, an unemployed cosmetologist, lives with her parents and two children in a double-wide trailer home outside the small town of Roland. This fall, her four nieces have also stayed there during the week so they can get online for classes, only going home to their parents on weekends.
Some of the girls sleep in reclining chairs because there are not enough beds. “We have to do what we have to do,” Ms. Breedan said.
Josie Hunt lives on the outskirts of Roland; the only internet access there is via satellite for $140 per month. But she canceled her subscription in September after a barrage of extra charges incurred from remote classes made the service unaffordable. And a broadband provider said laying a cable to her home would cost $12,000.
“I’d rather not ever have internet if I have to pay that much,” said Ms. Hunt, who is disabled and whose husband works odd jobs.
Without it, her son Nehemiah, 14, has been forced to rely on flash drives to do his school work, with devastating results. “In school I made all A’s and B’s,” he said. “Now I’m failing.”