McALLEN, Tex. — At 7 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Isabella and Tony Ruiz were standing in their usual homework spot, on a crumbling sidewalk across the street from the elementary school nearest to their home.
“I got it. I’m going to download,” Isabella said to her brother Tony as they connected to the school’s wireless hot spot and watched her teacher’s math guide slowly appear on the cracked screen of the family smartphone.
Isabella, 11, and Tony, 12, were outside the school because they have no Internet service at home — and connectivity is getting harder. With their mother, Maria, out of work for months and money coming only from their father, Isaias, who washes dishes, the family had cut back on almost everything, including their cellphone data plan.
So every weeknight, the siblings stood outside the low-slung school, sometimes for hours, to complete homework for the sixth grade.
“There’s just no funds left,” Maria Ruiz said later outside the family’s white clapboard rental home. “It worries me because it will become more important to have Internet when they have to do more homework.”
With many educators pushing for students to use resources on the Internet with class work, the federal government is now grappling with a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed Internet at home and an estimated five million families who are without it and who are struggling to keep up.
The challenge is felt across the nation. Some students in Coachella, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala., depend on school buses that have free Wi-Fi to complete their homework.