'Homework gap': Ohio students among millions lacking home internet service

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With no computer or internet service at home, Raegan Byrd find homework assignments a nightly challenge: How much can she get done using just her smartphone?

On the tiny screen, the honors student switches between web pages for research projects, losing track of tabs whenever friends send messages. She uses her thumbs to tap out school papers, but when glitches keep her from submitting assignments electronically, she writes them out by hand.

“At least I have something, instead of nothing, to explain the situation,” said Raegan, a high school senior in Hartford, Connecticut.

She is among nearly 3 million students around the country who face struggles keeping up with their studies because they must make do without home internet service. In classrooms, access to laptops and the internet is nearly universal. But at home, the cost of internet service and gaps in its availability create obstacles in urban areas and rural communities alike.

In what has become known as the homework gap, an estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home, and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet service, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data.

In central Ohio, there are 25 school districts in which more than one in 10 households don’t have a computer at home. The data reflects all households, regardless of whether they include children attending the public school district.

Nearly a quarter of households in the Circleville school district do not have a computer. More than 30% of the district’s households also lack access to broadband internet service.

In the Whitehall district, 18% of households lack computers. In the Hamilton district, 14.6% of households don’t have a computer, and more than 25% don’t have broadband access.

These figures stand in stark contrast to the New Albany-Plain district, the Olentangy district and others in affluent suburbs.

Nearly 96% of Olentangy households have broadband access and less than 2% don’t have a computer. In New Albany-Plain, just fewer than 95% of households have broadband and just under 3% have no computer.

Of all households in 49 central Ohio districts, just over 17% lack broadband access, and almost 10% don’t have access to a computer.

Nationwide, school districts, local governments and others have tried to help. Districts install wireless internet service on buses and lend hot spots. Many communities compile lists of Wi-Fi-enabled restaurants and other businesses where children are welcome to linger and do schoolwork. 

Some students study in the parking lots of schools, libraries or restaurants — wherever they can find a signal.

Often, teachers offer class time for students to work on projects that require an internet connection.

That’s the case in the Columbus City Schools, where 13% of households don’t have a home computer, and nearly a quarter lack access to broadband internet service. All school buildings have wireless internet service, and students are allowed to bring devices to use, district technology director Michele VanDyke said.

The city of Columbus has made indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi available in areas with heavy foot traffic, including the King-Lincoln District, the Jerry Hammond Center in Olde Towne East, 32 recreation centers and city hall, technology director Sam Orth said.

All of the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s branches also offer Wi-Fi.

“It’s a broader issue than just being able to do homework,” Van Dyke said. “Our mission is preparing students to be able to succeed in the world today, and that is mainly done on computers.”

The Lancaster school district distributed portable wireless hot spots to students this past school year, supported by a two-year grant from T-Mobile. It made up to 1,152 free devices available for students at Tallmadge and Gorsuch West elementary schools. The district bought another 2,000, which each cost $10 a month, for students in grades 6-12 who qualify.

Kevin Snyder, the district’s director of secondary education, estimates that about two-thirds of the devices were used in the first year.

All of the district’s 6,300 students are given personal devices — either a laptop or tablet — but about a quarter of district households lack broadband internet service, and 9% have no internet.

In rural areas beyond Lancaster, the problem is even greater, Snyder said.

“Even though they may not be in poverty, they simply can’t get access to high-speed, wireless internet,” he said. “It’s a huge issue, a huge need.”

His district plans to analyze test results to look for correlations between internet access and achievement, Snyder said, because, in general, students with home internet service consistently score higher in reading, math and science. And the homework gap in many ways mirrors broader educational barriers for poor and minority students.

Students without internet service at home are more likely to be those of color, from low-income families or in households with lower levels of parental education. Janice Flemming-Butler, who has researched barriers to internet access in Hartford, Connecticut’s largely black north end, said the disadvantage for minority students is an injustice on the same level as “when black people didn’t have books.”

A third of households with school-age children who do not have internet access at home cite the expense as the main reason, according to federal Education Department statistics gathered in 2017 and released in May. The survey found that the share of households without internet service has been declining overall but was still at 14% in metropolitan areas and 18% in nonmetropolitan areas.

A commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, called the homework gap “the cruelest part of the digital divide.”

In rural northern Mississippi, reliable home internet service is not available for some at any price.

On the outskirts of Starkville, home to Mississippi State University, Jennifer Hartness said her children often have to drive into town for a reliable connection. Daughter Abigail Shaw, who does a blend of high school and college work on the campus of a community college, said most assignments have to be completed using online software, and she relies on downloading class presentations to study.

“We spend a lot of time at the coffee shops, and we went to McDonald’s parking lot before then,” Abigail said.

At home, the family uses a satellite-dish service that costs $170 a month. It allows a certain amount of high-speed data each month and then slows to a crawl. Hartness said it’s particularly unreliable for uploading data. Abigail said she has lost work when satellites or phones have frozen.

In Connecticut, Raegan Byrd says she has learned to take responsibility for her education.

“What school does a good job with,” she said, “is making students realize that when you go out into the world, you have to do things for yourself.”

Dispatch reporters Kevin Stankiewicz and Alissa Widman Neese contributed to this story.