As public schools shift to remote learning, barriers to internet access deepen existing disparities.
Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Wisconsin schools will be closed for the rest of the academic year, which means that students now rely on high-speed internet connections to get an education. Charter Communications, one of the largest internet service providers in the United States and one of very few ISP options for consumers in the Madison area, recently enjoyed some positive PR by offering 60 free days of its Spectrum internet service, and waiving connection fees, for households with students in K-12 schools or college.
But people who have outstanding Charter bills are not eligible for the deal, and the free period is only for people creating new accounts with the ISP, making the gesture more of a sign-up promotion than an act of support for students and families struggling to adjust to the new social and economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gizmodo reported last week that Charter “has loaded its free internet offer for K-12 and college students with so many caveats as to make most people ineligible” and noted that “A teacher from Madison, Wis., whose school serves students from several low-income neighborhoods, said she received calls from parents saying their children could not attend class online; they too were ineligible for free Spectrum internet because of old, unpaid bills.” Spectrum relented on the policy in New York City under pressure from city council members and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, The City reported. In Chicago, Chalkbeat reported that officials have clashed with another major ISP, Comcast, over a similar policy.
The Madison Metropolitan Area School District began all-online instruction on April 6 after a massive effort to distribute about 18,000 laptops to students over the course of just a few weeks. But the district estimates that about 3,000 of its more than 27,000 students are currently not able to get online, for one reason or another, says Chad Wiese, MMSD’s Executive Director of Building Services. It’s not clear how many of those live in households cut off due to outstanding Charter bills.
The barriers to internet access will obviously do the most harm to students from low-income households, and will aggravate Madison’s existing racial disparities and MMSD’s racial achievement gap. Some school board members didn’t know about the catch in Charter’s offer until Thursday.
“It’s like internet redlining,” says MMSD Board Member Savion Castro. “It’s messed up. We’re trying to exhaust all options buying hotspots. There have been ideas of students doing like an hour of homework in a parking lot in a car near a library…there just aren’t 3,000 hotspots lying around in the Madison area. It’s such an intense problem with equity, across the board, with online education.”
Castro says he hopes the district can work with ISPs to resolve the issue, and notes that the Board will also be looking at how funding from federal and state-level pandemic relief bills might help.
“From an equity perspective, every child should have access to the materials they need to learn. It’s very disappointing to learn this is occurring,” says MMSD Board Member Nicki Vander Meulen. “I hope we can get this resolved as soon as possible so our kids can have a sense of normalcy.”
Vander Meulen, who is also running for a State Assembly seat in the 76th District, says that as a person with disabilities, she’s especially concerned about how inequities in internet access will impact special-education programs. Vander Meulen praised the efforts of MMSD’s technical staff in making the transition to online classes.
Wiese says the district is trying to cover the 3,000-student gap by setting up hotspots, and possibly wifi-equipped buses, that would use mobile data networks to connect people to the internet. This will be challenging too, as the pandemic has already caused a shortage of hotspots. Wiese isn’t sure just yet how Charter and other large ISPs fit into the picture.
“Heading down the path of working with large internet service providers at this point is something we’ve just started to explore,” Wiese says.
Charter spokespeople have not yet replied to requests for comment. This story will be updated if they do.
However, a Charter representative reached Thursday through the company’s customer-service line told me that households with outstanding bills would not be eligible for the program until their bills were paid up in full. When I asked whether setting up a payment plan would suffice, the representative answered that it would not.
TJ McCray, MMSD’s Director of Instructional Technology and Media Services, told me Thursday that he has personally reached out to Charter on behalf of some students’ families, and persuaded the company to let those families set up payment plans and reconnect under the terms of the promotion. However, it’s not clear Charter would have done that for a household that asked without backup from the school district.
“Please know that this is just not a Spectrum concern but most companies,” McCray says. “It just so happens that Spectrum is one of the most popular providers with our families.”
I’ve spoken with several MMSD staff and educators this week who were aware that families with unpaid Charter bills couldn’t take advantage of the free connection. One staff member, who asked not to be cited by name, compared the restriction to turning off someone’s heat in January.
“Those kids are not able to equitably engage in the digital classrooms and digital MMSD community,” the staff member says. “If Madison is going to talk about equity and really take it seriously, not just as a school district but as a community, these are pretty significant inequities that are existing. The concern here is that it just widens the gap.”