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With coronavirus sweeping through their rural district, the children of Francis Marion School in Perry County, Alabama, started school online this week. But for many, logging on for class was out of the question.

Only about half of the school's 600-odd students have reliable internet at home and one in five has no connection at all, said principal Cathy Trimble, who has been scrambling to supply pupils with tablets and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

"Our district cannot afford to get devices for our students. And then the biggest thing is connectivity. No broadband," said Trimble.

"I don't mean because (they) can't purchase it. In such rural areas it doesn't even go out there," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Perry County is one of the poorest in the state, and Francis Marion School ranks near the bottom of Alabama schools on test scores. Ninety-nine percent of its students are Black.

As the pandemic forces schools across the country to switch to virtual learning, a technology gap that has existed for decades has suddenly become visible and of urgent concern.

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Some 16 million children, or 30% of all U.S. public school students, lack either an internet connection or a device at home adequate for distance learning, according to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group.

One in three Black, Latino and Native American students lacks a broadband connection, compared to one in five white students, according to an analysis by four educational advocacy groups in July.

While donors, states and phone companies have stepped up with plans to connect more students for free or at discounted rates during the pandemic, the programs are temporary and do not reach everyone, educators and analysts said.

"There's no big federal imperative or mandate to ensure that every school kid has access to technology," said Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank.

"I think what schools are doing in the interim... is a critical move. But it in no way addresses the Herculean effort that is going to be needed to cover all of America," she said.

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Middle school reading teacher Shayna Boyd prepares for the start of remote teaching due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in her home office in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. April 8, 2020. Picture taken April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan O'Brien.

Before the pandemic, most schools did not know how many of their students lacked home internet, said telecoms providers, school board members and researchers.

Since coronavirus hit, schools have conducted surveys and distributed Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops - in many cases provided through their states using federal coronavirus relief funds.

But the devices are out of stock, some schools did not get enough while others said they were still struggling to figure out how many of their students needed one as families' financial situations changed week to week.

On the Friday before classes were due to start, Trimble had fewer than 100 hotspots for an estimated 300 children who might need one, she said. Some parents had already returned them because they were not picking up a signal where they lived.

"For every one that I give out, someone else is saying, 'I need some type of connectivity, how can you help me?'," Trimble said.

'Broadband desert'

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FILE PHOTO: An entrance to Public School 155 is seen locked in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

At least 18 million Americans, or 6% of the population, live in areas where fixed broadband service is not available, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Many more have access to the internet, but cannot afford to pay for it.

The United States has higher internet prices than Asia, Europe and the rest of North America at an average of $68 a month, a 2020 report by the New America think-tank showed. 

In Marion County, South Carolina, both poverty and a lack of coverage keep more than half the population offline, said Miko Pickett, a former IT professional who runs a local foundation called Neighbors Helping Neighbors.

"We are a broadband desert," said Pickett by phone from the town of Mullins, where she said it is common to see people parked outside the library to use its Wi-Fi connection.

The majority of Marion County's residents are Black, and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.

It is one of 17 counties that are part of the "Corridor of Shame", a rural stretch of South Carolina that earned the label for its decaying, under-funded schools, which featured in a 2005 documentary with the same name.

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FILE PHOTO: New York Public School 321 is seen closed in the Park Slope neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

When students were first sent home in March, residents and local charities scrambled for solutions up and down the poverty-stricken area that straddles highway I-95.

"I was on LinkedIn and everything, begging people for laptops. It was horrible," said Pickett, who shared her own Wi-Fi hotspot with neighbors so their children could do their homework.

Some families received free internet for two months from a local provider as a coronavirus relief gesture, but then they started getting billed for it.

"After 60 days they cut mine off. I'm trying to find out now whether they will turn it back on before school starts," said Bessie Davis, a Mullins resident whose teenage granddaughter lives with her and is due to start school on Sept. 8.

South Carolina has earmarked $50 million from its federal coronavirus relief funds to expand internet access, and Marion County schools are expecting laptops and hotspots to arrive next month.

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But students will be playing catch-up to those who transitioned seamlessly to digital learning earlier this year, said Pickett, and the hotspots are only funded through December.

"We're worried that for children who were already far behind, they will be farther behind," said Phyllis Martin, CEO of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative (TCCC), which works to boost educational equity in South Carolina.

In the three counties where TCCC works, which are south of Marion but also partly in the "Corridor of Shame", the racial gaps in educational attainment are already vast.

In 2018, just 20% of Black students attained the expected level of reading by 8th grade, compared to 60% of white students.

Lack of technology could widen that gap, Martin said.

'Not a level playing field'

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Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students Keiley Flores, 13, Andrea Ramos, 10, and Alexander Ramos, 8, work on school-issued computers with unreliable internet connectivity, as their mother Anely Solis, 32, and their brother Enrique Ramos, 5, look on, during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at their home in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Farther south, in Beaufort County, retired bookstore owner Esther Shaver-Harnett, 79, said she bought 100 hotspots for schoolchildren in her community earlier this year because no one else was doing it.

"I've started raising hell, not money yet," she said of her quest to get poor students in coastal South Carolina online, a mission that has gained momentum since coronavirus hit.

Beaufort County includes islands such as Hilton Head that are vacation spots for the wealthy, but also has poor, largely Black areas that community members say have been overlooked.

Educators and advocates say that if anything good comes from the pandemic, it will be shining a light on wide disparities in internet access and getting the issue on legislators' agendas.

"We were having these discussions about the digital divide five to six years ago, and they just never gained traction," said Mark Chauhan, technology services officer for South Carolina's Beaufort County School District.

"The biggest thing that's happened for our country is to realize that there is a gap."

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Hazeline Panditaratne completes her math assessments from her computer in Broward County, Florida, U.S. May 29, 2020. Picture taken May 29, 2020. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have petitioned for the right to use coronavirus relief funding to expand permanent broadband infrastructure in rural areas, rather than spending it on short-term solutions such as mobile hotspots.

The CARES Act - the $2 trillion economic stimulus package signed into law by President Donald Trump in March - stipulates that the money be spent on broadband projects that will be finished by December, effectively limiting it to quick fixes. 

House Democrats introduced a bill in June that would invest $100 billion to close the digital divide, and Republicans have proposed their own laws to expand broadband infrastructure - though neither is likely to pass without bipartisan support.

"I think everybody now understands how absolutely imperative it is to get internet access to these kids," said Shaver-Harnett, who has been going between local representatives, telecoms companies and school board members for months.

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People walk with protective face masks past closed Public School 96 in the Queens borough of New York City, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

But in places where school has started and students are missing out, solutions still feel out of reach.

"Who is standing up for us?" said Trimble, the principal in Perry County, Alabama, who spent all summer trying to get broken iPads that had been donated five years ago in working condition for her students.

"Sometimes it's like, because we're in a poor, rural area people think we don't have high expectations, that we don't really care. Yes we do care."

"We're not on a level playing field. We want to at least be in the game."

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