No signal: Internet ‘dead zones’ cut rural students off from virtual classes.

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 couldn’t 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.

“It’s not fair,” said Shekinah, 17. “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. About 15 million K-12 students lived in households without adequate online connectivity or remote devices in 2018, according to a study of federal data by Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit.

It is an issue that state and federal officials have long struggled to address. 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.

Desperate for workarounds, schools across the country have scrambled to distribute mobile hot spots and internet-equipped iPads. Districts from Wisconsin to Kansas to Alabama have transformed idle school buses into roving Wi-Fi vehicles that park in neighborhoods so that students can sit nearby and log on to classes.

“It’s un-American,” said Monique Felder, the superintendent for Orange County, N.C. In her district, which is just a few miles from Research Triangle Park and home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than 5,200 households lack broadband internet access. “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.”

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