Future Tense

What It’s Like to Be Underconnected to the Internet and Worried About Returning to Remote Learning

A young Black boy on a couch looking at a tablet.
Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Among other things, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill—which recently passed the U.S. Senate and is now awaiting action by members of the House—tries to solve some long-standing problems with digital access and equity. It aims to bring high-speed internet access to rural areas and other underserved places and offers subsidies to help lower-income families pay their broadband bills. Those subsidies, which top $30 per month, are actually a decrease from the $50 subsidies that have been available since May. But those more generous subsidies were part of a temporary emergency provision tied to the pandemic—and funds are running low. Passage of the infrastructure bill will turn the temporary benefit into a permanent one.

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All of this sounds promising. Advocates for better and more affordable broadband are relatively pleased, even if the new legislation doesn’t go as far as they want. Improving access seems especially important for families with school-age kids, as the Delta variant spreads and outbreaks of COVID-19 may cause schools to pivot back to remote learning for weeks or months. (Some already have.)

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It’s particularly worrying for families who struggled to stay online during remote learning in 2020-2021—for families like Janice Myers’.

Myers, 63, agreed to share her story with Future Tense. Myers, known as “Mama” to her five godchildren, takes care of the kids at her home in Pittsburgh every weekday, helping them with school and homework assignments, taking them to appointments, and making their meals each week while their mother works. The kids include a 22-month-old toddler, a 6-year-old boy who started kindergarten last week, and three older children, in the second, sixth, and seventh, grades. They go to a charter school in the city.

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I first met Myers via the Learning at Home While Under-Connected project, a partnership between New America and Rutgers University along with several community-based organizations that serve low-income families with children. (Disclosure: I was an editor on the project, and New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) The project includes results from a telephone survey of more than 1,000 families at the median income level or lower. And it showcases the experiences of parents in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Santa Clara County, California, recording their stories (in English and Spanish) of trials and tribulations of trying to help their children when it was so difficult to get online and get their devices to work in ways that matched what the schools required.

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Myers’ story shows what daily life is like when families with kids have unreliable internet access and inadequate devices, as well as the numerous roadblocks to getting help. For example, when the pandemic hit, Myers had a monthly contract with Comcast for cable and internet access—a contract that was already stretching her monthly budget, given that she lives on a fixed income. It included monthly bills for two additional Wi-Fi routers, at $9.95 per month, to extend wireless access to other rooms in her house. A month before the pandemic, she had planned to give back those routers to bring the price down, but when virtual learning started, she realized she needed them for her children to get online in different rooms. This led her to inquire about getting the advertised Internet Essentials discount. As a low-income family, she thought she would qualify. But Comcast told her that the discount was only for new customers. As she put it, “They couldn’t help me at all.”

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In our conversation below, which has been edited and condensed, she talks about the importance of connecting not just to faster networks or new devices, but also to people who know how to help and understand where she is coming from. And she points out that parents and caregivers may not have access to scanners, printers, or other digital tools for sending documents required by registration systems. She hopes the new legislation will recognize this instead of making it ever-more difficult to get the resources her kids need.

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Lisa Guernsey: Help me visualize how this looked—what was the setup in your house?

Janice Myers: They were using tablets they got from school. I was using my phone to communicate. I had a dining room table I moved into the bedroom so everyone had a place to work.

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Your own bedroom?

Yes, with the baby in the pack-n-play.

And these were young children. So sometimes I had to move some into the living room and bedroom to make sure the educational environment stayed intact for the older ones.

You were a panelist in a June event about the national findings on how lower-income families were coping with virtual learning from home. As you said at the event, “one of the biggest challenges for us was being under-connected. The school did give the kids computers but there wasn’t enough capacity for us all to be logged in at the same time.” Can you elaborate?

In the beginning the children would log on to their tablets, and most of the time, in those first three or four months, they would have moments when things would freeze or the service would come in and out, we would have to log in and log out and log in again. I was always chatting with the teacher, saying we can’t get in. The cameras wouldn’t work so they couldn’t be part of the Zoom classroom. They could see the teacher, but she couldn’t see them.

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I had to take the devices back and forth to the school. At first we thought it was the tablets. And then I thought it was a problem at home, without having good internet access. I kept calling [Comcast] and saying the kids can’t get on.

And the people providing the technical help at the school, they would speak in languages I didn’t understand. What do you mean “find my hotspot”? What does that mean? I’m a grandmother, I would tell them. What you said means nothing to me. So they would say, Could you bring your kids and computer into the school so we could see what’s going on?

I had to return to that school seven times for problems with devices.

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And then it turned out it was that the school district system didn’t have enough capacity for all the children who were logging into the system. And I finally spoke to a director in [information technology], and he said it was that they didn’t have the capacity in the network, that the network was designed to handle emails from parents coming in from the outside [while] students [were] learning in the building. It wasn’t ready for multiple children in the same school to be logging into the system at the same time all day every day.

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Did it get better?

Yes, it got better. The thing that got better was the communication, that’s what it was. In the beginning I didn’t know who to reach out to. The buildings were closed and I had to leave messages, and I didn’t know who to talk to, and I couldn’t email them because the systems were down. But once we were able to receive specific contact people, and once those people knew who to contact on our behalf to get to things directly, then it started to get better.

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It sounds like the people who could troubleshoot problems for you—they were critical.

Critical. The administrative assistant at the school—she became the go-to person for everything. She said, Ms. Myers, take my cellphone number.

[But] one of my kids had three teachers in three months. There were teachers’ assistants and others that were leaving. And when the kids were trying to get on the Zoom, I would be saying, we can’t get in, we can’t get in, and sending messages. And then that night I would get an email saying, Here is a new teacher for your child. That other teacher is not with us anymore. And that added to the chaos for families that were dealing with this.

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The under-connected report describes situations in which tablets or laptops don’t work well enough to do school-related activities. Did this happen to you?

I had to replace my first-grader’s tablet on two different occasions. The camera didn’t work, and I had to take it back. We live 25 minutes from school. So me and all the kids, we have to take the bus and get downtown. And one time we all got on the bus and we got there and we went to the building and no one was there when we had scheduled a time.  So we had to go back home.

And that’s not including the time the sixth grader spilled water on the tablet and it didn’t work.

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Just getting on buses can be stressful during a pandemic. I’m assuming everyone had to be wearing masks?

Right. And because they reduced capacity on the buses, you couldn’t have more than 16 people on the bus. So sometimes the buses would pass you because they were already at capacity. And then you add that it was 25 minutes in and 25 minutes out. By the time I got back with the kids, class was over for those kids. So they missed that day.

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What about this coming year? What are you hoping will be different?

We have all learned a lot. We are all pandemic smarter. This delta variant is not catching us unaware. We have learned some things along the way. As a family we have identified our strengths with this. We have come through it, I’m using airquotes here, “intact.” But my concern is that the kids haven’t yet received their tablets for the incoming year.

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Right now, it’s going to be in-class learning. But if that changes, will they have tablets for each child? Will they have the capacity to enable them to get on the network all at once? I haven’t received any info from the school district about that. So those are my concerns.

Will the provisions for affordable internet access in infrastructure bill, do you think they will help you?

Absolutely. Even with the Internet Essentials, if I had qualified for that program, it would have eased a lot of stressors and helped me prioritize what I was or wasn’t going to purchase based on what I needed to do to help them learn. If families like me on a limited income were able to qualify for programs such as the one that we’re hoping to be approved for soon, that would help.

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But what I hope is that when school starts, if we were able to switch over like that, what I would hope happens is that they make that process easy. Because it’s not easy. There were programs out there, I looked into them, but they want you to sign and print and email them information. I don’t have a printer. I don’t have a scanner. What I want people who are passing these bills to understand is that, even with the help, we still need help in accessing the help. People are asking for information that we have but we can’t email it to you. I can’t scan it, bring a printed copy, or email it to you. I don’t have those things.

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I was reading about [the infrastructure bill] and hoping, just hoping I don’t have to log into a place and upload this stuff. I don’t have the capacity to upload it. It is an additional stressor—to know that there is help available and I can’t gain access to it.

For example, last year, the libraries were closed and we weren’t able to go there. You need to understand that before the pandemic, and now, I use the technology at libraries. I use their printer. I don’t have the capacity to do all of this on my phone. I want people who are making these decisions to understand that the second part of this needs to be the ease of accessibility for lower income parents. It’s almost like you have to be already connected to qualify for something to help you get connected.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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