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Homework gap
So far, two buses in the Coachella Valley Unified School District have Wi-Fi technology. The district is still working on how to best use the technology on buses. (Credit: Nichole Dobo, The Hechinger Report)

There just a few hundred students at the public schools in Saint Paul, Arkansas, a speck of a town nestled north of a national forest.

Many of these children don’t have an Internet connection at home, the principal of Saint Paul schools, Daisy Dyer Duerr, said. An after-school program established here three years ago here provides an Internet connection, enrichment lessons and transportation home. Children who sign up stay for three hours after school, she said.

“It’s not as good as having it at home, but it’s a great compromise,” Duerr said during a phone conversation last week.

It’s not a perfect solution. Among the challenges: long bus rides home. Some children who stay after school don’t get home until 7 p.m. And these same children must climb aboard the school bus the next day around 6 a.m., Duerr said.

As I wrote in a story last week for The Hechinger Report, a new Federal Communications Commission program is designed to connect more low-income households to the Internet by subsidizing their bills. In Saint Paul, most students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Will they get help with the “homework gap” through that new program? Maybe. But help paying an Internet bill isn’t much help if the service is unavailable or lacking.

And that’s exactly the problem in Saint Paul, Arkansas.

“The service is so sketchy,” Duerr said. “If you do get service, it’s not very good.”

In many remote areas, obtaining a speedy internet connection – or even just a cell phone signal – isn’t just a matter of earning enough money to pay the bill. Broadband simply isn’t available in some places because no one built it there. In many of these areas, the only options are dial-up or satellite access, which tend to be expensive and slow.

Lack of a home Internet connection is a problem that yawns wider than rural communities. It’s an issue for children in cities and suburbs, too. If they don’t have an Internet connection – or a computer – at home, they can’t curl up on the couch at home to study, take an online class or do their homework. (A project in Brooklyn empowers students to set up Internet connections for their community.)

Many people agree that digital learning holds a lot of promise. Online programs now offer free access to AP courses, SAT preparation and other educational resources that help K-12 students prepare for college and careers. But it’s not all that promising if people who are already at a disadvantage get left behind.

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