For months, Gus Peters, a high school senior in the East Texas town of Jasper, went where the Wi-Fi was. Some days, he parked himself at the local coffee shop, Jasper Java, ordering a green tea frappé to appease whoever was working the register. Other times, he went to Elijah’s Cafe for a Trail Blazer, the diner’s signature dish of chopped steak smothered in gravy. Often, he spent hours in his gray Ford Escape in the parking lots of Walmart, Lowe’s, or McDonald’s, his sister Grace beside him, both of them on their laptops, doing schoolwork. “I didn’t feel right sitting in the parking lot,” Gus says. “Didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there.” He and his sister were Wi-Fi nomads.
Gus and Grace, who is in ninth grade, would have preferred doing their schoolwork at home, a house seven miles south of Jasper (population: 7,500) that they share with their parents, Floyd and Christina, three siblings, three cats, and a dog. But like many families in this impoverished, piney corner of the state, the Peterses do not have reliable internet service. Numerous times, including thrice in the past year, they have tried satellite and cable internet services through companies such as HughesNet, Verizon, and AT&T. All were patchy, with weak signals or none at all. They can use their cell phones as hotspots, along with signal boosters, but that’s not much better. “Sometimes you’re able to load something up, but then twenty minutes later, a cloud passes over and it’ll be out for an hour,” Gus says.
When Jasper schools shut down last March, the Peters kids didn’t need internet for school. That’s because for the rest of the school year, Jasper ISD went to an all-paper system to accommodate most of its students, who didn’t have reliable internet connectivity. Teachers mailed paper homework packets to students, and families returned them to drop boxes placed at schools. It was cumbersome and ineffective. “It was a logistical nightmare. It was bad,” says Lindsey Jeansonne, an English teacher at Jasper Junior High School.
So for the fall semester, Jasper ISD encouraged all students to come back in person. Families could choose to keep students home, but only if the kids found a way to attend school online. Since Floyd and Christina didn’t want to risk contracting the coronavirus, they opted to have Gus and Grace stay home.
Before the pandemic hit, things were going well for Gus. Popular and athletic, with neatly parted brown hair, he was a lineman for the Jasper High Bulldogs and served on homecoming court two years in a row. He made As and Bs. He had plans: after graduation he wanted to become a mechanic, and then join the military. His parents wanted him to consider college someday as well.
But six weeks into the school year, Gus was flunking all his classes. “The worst grades I’ve ever had,” he says. Grace fared slightly better, though she was struggling too. “Boy’s worked hard his whole life all the way until this pandemic started a year ago, and this caused a big kink in his studies,” Floyd says.
Ultimately, Floyd and Christina decided in January to send the kids back to in-person school. Though Gus’s grades have improved enough that he’s on track to graduate, the lost time has taken a toll. Students “are coming back and they haven’t done anything since March,” says Katrina Best, a math teacher at Jasper Junior High. “They’re still failing because, you know, math builds on itself.”
When I met in mid-March with John Seybold, the Jasper ISD superintendent and a 1998 graduate of Jasper High, he smiled widely and offered me an elbow to bump. But when we sat down in the district’s administrative meeting room, his tone turned serious. “We’re really worried about the slide the kids have had,” says Seybold. “We’re going to have to come up with a two- to three-year plan to build in supports to get them caught back up.” Right now, he’s most worried about low-income and minority students who were struggling academically even before the pandemic. Nearly 60 percent of his 2,400 students are African American or Hispanic, and 80 percent of Jasper pupils come from economically disadvantaged families, 20 percent more than the statewide average.
The Peterses are among an estimated 5.25 million Texans who don’t have broadband Internet subscriptions at home. Some families can’t afford a connection, and others—mainly in rural areas—don’t have the telecommunications infrastructure to support broadband. Internet service providers have little financial incentive to invest in sparsely populated, low-income parts of the state. A few months into the pandemic, the Texas Education Agency estimated that 1.8 million students—roughly a third of the total—didn’t have home internet connectivity, but the actual number is likely higher, says Gaby Rowe, the project lead for Operation Connectivity, a TEA-backed coalition leading the effort to get students connected at home.
Deep East Texas, which includes Jasper and twelve counties, is one of the most underserved regions in the nation when it comes to broadband. A study by the Deep East Texas Council of Government found that nearly half of all residents have download speeds of 10 megabits per second or less. Experts say that an adequate download speed for distance learning is 25 Mbps or higher. (The average speed in Texas homes is 118 Mbps, according to BroadbandNow, a consumer broadband research site.) And even when internet access is available, it’s often expensive. The same study found that on average, residents of deep East Texas pay four times more for fixed-line internet service than those in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex.
But the crisis has prodded officials to take action. In Jasper, a city-sponsored nonprofit formed a broadband committee, composed of business leaders, policy makers, and educators, to develop a county-specific broadband plan. The group has also taken the lead in collecting countywide data on broadband access.
At the state level, the Texas Senate passed a bill in late March that would require the formation of a statewide broadband development plan by the fall of 2022. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the TEA has funded the purchase of more than 4.5 million computers and Wi-Fi hotspots for schools and students, with a total of close to $1 billion spent on Texas public schools. Now, the TEA and Operation Connectivity have an even more ambitious goal: provide free at-home internet access for every public school student within two to five years.
“The digital divide is not a new issue. I remember talking about connectivity being an issue twenty years ago for students,” says Rowe, who is a former school principal. “But obviously, the pandemic has highlighted this in a way that nothing else has.”
Around four hundred Jasper ISD students are still learning at home this semester. Because so many families still lack high-speed internet and most kids have returned to school, the district doesn’t offer Zoom-style live instruction, relying instead on what is known as “asynchronous learning.”
In Jasper, teachers post notes, homework, and sometimes videos online, and students check in on their own schedules. Remote students in Jasper are, to a certain extent, teaching themselves. “It’s basically by correspondence,” says Seybold. “I’m really worried about our first- and second-graders who are home, because that’s a critical age where they’re learning to read. I’m worried about our seniors because they aren’t on track to graduate.”
Though more than eighty percent of Jasper students are back in classrooms, many of the rest are struggling with the fully asynchronous model.
That includes Katrina Clark’s three young boys. Diagnosed with stage-IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma in late 2019, just before the pandemic, she underwent a stem cell transplant this past summer. Her immune system is weak and she’s frail—sending her boys to school where they might pick up COVID was not a risk she was willing to take. So before the start of the school year, the Clarks bought three tablets on installment to get their kids technologically equipped for remote school. At $500 a month, the payments on the devices, plus an internet subscription, made up a hefty chunk of their $3,000 monthly income. The couple fell behind on home payments and nearly went into foreclosure. Still, they kept the internet. It was the only way Katrina Clark could see her children while she was in the hospital, and she knew they would need internet access for school.
The district supplied them with school-issued hotspots and more powerful tablets in January, but Clark says the technology does little more than help the boys log on to collect homework and turn it in. Since the pandemic, she and the kids have only communicated with teachers through email, and she worries that without any live instruction, they’re being left behind.
When I meet Clark at her home around 11 a.m. on a Friday in mid-March, the boys are logging on to their school accounts. It’s a cloudy day, and the boys are squeezed around the circular table in the small galley kitchen of their single-wide trailer, all of them barefoot, for a morning session of schoolwork. The room is cramped but neat; a fruity-smelling pink candle burns on polished wooden counters that Clark, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Albert, a heavy-machine operator, built themselves.
Noah, four, has a short alphabet video to watch. Logan, seven, has no work, and Zachary, ten, has one worksheet. Noah, squirming on Katrina’s lap, presses buttons on his device. The learning session lasts all of ten minutes.
That’s not atypical. The younger two boys usually have only five to ten minutes of work a day, Katrina says. And while Zachary, the fifth grader, has up to two or three hours of work a day, it’s all in the form of worksheets. Since he has no interaction with peers or teachers, his interest in school has waned. “When they go back to actual school, I honestly think their grades are going to go downhill,” she says.
As the two older boys move on to streaming TV shows on their tablets, Katrina pines for something that many Texas parents, though certainly not all, have come to abhor: Zoom classes. Suburban and urban schools may be navigating the challenges of doing school via videoconferencing, but for some rural communities, that would be a step up from the status quo. “They would get to interact with their teachers; they would get to interact with the other kids—but the way they do it here, it’s not like that,” she says.
One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that it has put a spotlight on the digital divide in education, and triggered a few immediate, long-term changes. Hotspots provided a stopgap solution in most districts, but some administrators quickly moved forward with more permanent plans. In October, Ector County ISD in Odessa formed a partnership with SpaceX, which has promised to bring low-cost satellite internet to families through its Starlink program. Funded with $300,000 in grants coming from corporate and nonprofit donations, the pilot program currently has 10 families. Soon, 35 more will be added, with 90 more after that. That’s nonetheless a tiny fraction of the district’s 32,000 students, 39 percent of whom had limited or no internet access at the start of the pandemic.
Lockhart ISD, a rural district just south of Austin that covers more than three hundred square miles, has brought free internet to 93 percent of its students through a partnership with Particle Communications, a small, San Angelo–based service provider with just fifteen employees. Particle spent an initial $447,500 to build four network towers in town last summer—one on school property—and to set up internet service for three existing towers and install network connections in at least five hundred homes. The company will provide free network access for ten years—for a total cost to the district of about $1 million. Two months ago, Particle formed a similar partnership with Luling ISD, just south of Lockhart. For the company, the school partnerships make long-term economic sense: Particle will be the first to have access to growing markets.
Lockhart and Luling are attractive because they are located in the high-growth area between booming Austin and San Antonio. Jasper, by contrast, is more than an hour away from the nearest sizable city—Beaumont, with just under 120,000 people—and isn’t growing. But even in Jasper there has been some progress. About twenty minutes away from the Clark family, Kheylan Holmes, thirteen, who has a congenital heart condition that puts him at high risk if he were to contract the coronavirus, attends school remotely from his bedroom. He can do so because affordable broadband became available just weeks before school started. His mother, Mesha McDaniel, is a single mom who works for the school district. For years, her only internet option—a $140-a-month satellite connection—was out of her financial reach. But in August, AT&T expanded service into her area. At $75 a month, her plan is affordable—but just barely. “You know, you kind of deal with it and go on and adjust, because it’s something that he had to have,” she says.
Still, McDaniel says she is grateful. Her mother, who lives around the corner, has no broadband options.
The difficulty for Jasper is that without high-speed internet, the town can’t prosper, but it can’t get high-speed internet because it’s not prosperous.
Eddie Hopkins is a local high-speed internet enthusiast, and the executive director of the Jasper Economic Development Corporation, a taxpayer-funded nonprofit focused on improving the local economy. White-haired with grown children, the 63-year-old former banker took the position three years ago and soon realized that without better internet, the town had little hope of attracting businesses, much less preparing children for college or the workforce.
“I think sometimes we’re hidden behind the pine curtain; we’re hidden behind where we live,” Hopkins says, sitting in his office in an inconspicuous building across from a drive-through Subway labeled the “Jasper Welcome Center.” “I really feel discriminated against because of where these kids have to live. They don’t choose where to live. It’s not like they have the ability to live in Houston or Dallas or Austin or San Antonio or Lufkin.”
But moral outrage doesn’t build infrastructure: massive investment does, and that will require public dollars. “Because of the cost involved in getting infrastructure to the most rural parts of deep East Texas, there’s going to need to be a public-private partnership created,” Hopkins says.
He argues that we need to think about broadband internet the way people viewed electricity in the New Deal era: as a basic necessity that requires federal intervention. By the 1930s, most cities and towns in America had electricity, but only about 10 percent of rural America was electrified. To bring the countryside to parity with the cities, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, which offered thirty-year low-interest loans to newly formed rural electric cooperatives to build infrastructure for electricity.
More than seventy years ago, the Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative used its federal loan to finance construction and operation of a power plant and the wires and poles to get the electricity into homes. Today, the cooperative has 18,500 members, including Hopkins, across five counties. Reliable electric power is taken for granted. Hopkins would like the same to someday be true of high-speed internet.
Things are moving in that direction. In 2019, the governor signed into law a bill authorizing electric co-ops to “construct, operate, and maintain fiber optic cables and other facilities for providing broadband service” to their members.
In addition, there will be an infusion of cash at the federal level. Hopkins hands me a report detailing a new $362 million grant, approved by the Federal Communications Commission in December, for service providers to expand broadband in Texas. Jasper County is slated to get $13 million, the bulk of which will go to Connecticut-based Charter Communications, a Fortune 500 telecom company that won the bid to build the infrastructure that would bring broadband to the county.
“They’ve got a great plan,” Hopkins says. “It’s just a matter of how it’s going to be implemented.” He laughs and shakes his head. “Someday soon, we hope. And ‘soon’ could be ten years.”
But former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says small grants aren’t sufficient to build out the nationwide infrastructure necessary to close the digital divide. It’s a piecemeal process that hasn’t worked, he says. Wheeler, an Obama appointee who oversaw a controversial move to reclassify broadband as a utility, compares the task to building a highway: “Pay for it once and get it done.”
He says President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, known as The American Jobs Plan, contains a significant down payment on nationwide infrastructure. The plan proposes a $100 billion federal investment in bringing what it terms “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American.”
He argues that the government shouldn’t just equip internet deserts with the bare minimum of broadband access. Instead, the influx of investment should be used to bring rural and urban America to internet parity with the rest of the country. “What’s going to happen when schools are using virtual reality in classes? That’s going to require serious throughput, far beyond what is needed for Zoom,” Wheeler says.
He turns back to his highway comparison to drive the point home: “You don’t want to build a two-lane road that you’re going to have to turn around and in a couple of years rip everything up, when you knew all along you were going to need a four-lane road.”
Today, Gus Peters is back on track to graduate. At school he wears a mask and is as careful as he can be around his peers. At least ten of his friends have also returned, though a few have dropped out of school altogether. He plans to take his sister Grace to prom. It’s their last year in school together, and she likes any excuse to wear a nice dress.
Young as he is, Gus does not know the history of electricity in deep East Texas—how his hometown sat in the dark while much of the rest of the country enjoyed lights at the flip of a switch. But he does understand the power and value of something most teens take for granted. When he can get online, he uses Instagram and Snapchat, posting photos of himself with his siblings and friends, along with an assortment of goofy selfies. In May, when he graduates, he hopes to take a selfie with his diploma and post it online for the world to see.
Sindya Bhanoo is a Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow at the University of Michigan. This project was also supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.