Two years ago, Polk County, Tennessee, was able to give all of its middle school students an iPad, complete with 5 gigabytes of data a month, to work on school assignments outside of the classroom.
This one-to-one access to technology is rare in rural counties with limited funding, but despite the excitement around the program there was a hitch.
Some students in rural areas of Polk County didn't have internet access — or even cell service — at home.
Polk County's students are among nearly 3 million students around the nation who make do without home internet. In classrooms, access to laptops and the internet is rampant, but at home, the cost of internet service and gaps in its availability create obstacles in urban areas and rural communities alike.
In what has become known as the homework gap, an estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data.
But the problem is even greater in some of Southeast Tennessee's rural school districts, the Times Free Press found.
In Hamilton County, 74.8% of households have access to broadband internet access, which includes data cell service, but in Meigs County, only 57% of households do.
About 15% of Hamilton County students don't have home access to a computer — some have "mobile only" access — but this is well below the state's overall 22.5%. Counties including Franklin, Grundy, Marion, McMinn, Polk and Rhea all exceed the state average.
In Grundy, nearly one-third of students don't have access to any sort of laptop, tablet or computer outside of school.
That lack of access can have dire consequences for children, according to the Associated Press. Students with home internet consistently score higher in reading, math and science, and the homework gap in many ways mirrors broader educational barriers for poor and minority students.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called it "the cruelest part of the digital divide," when children in underserved communities are left behind because they lack ready access to computers and the internet.
This is not a new problem, said Jason Bell, a Polk County Schools administrator and board member of the Tennessee Rural Education Association.
"That's just what we do in rural districts, we just adapt to things," Bell said. "We are a rural district that struggles with funding sometimes. So what happens is we have to adapt to those things and our teachers have to adapt. To me, just thinking about rural access and connectivity, it's not just a school problem, it's a community problem."
A lack of access to technology and a need to expose Polk's students motivated Bell and colleague Ryan Goodman, executive director of the Tennessee Rural Education Association and district administrator for Polk County Schools, to apply for a Verizon Foundation innovative learning school grant in 2018. The $1.25 million grant has since given every middle school student and their teachers an iPad and provided coaching for how teachers can enhance their curriculum and use the devices to further student learning.
In more metropolitan areas, it's not necessarily infrastructure itself that is the problem, said Geoff Millener, digital equity officer at Chattanooga nonprofit organization the Enterprise Center.
"Cost and affordability is one of the biggest barriers," Millener said. "It doesn't seem to be a perception issue. Particularly with parents and families, they know they fall behind if they don't have that access."
So what do educators do when their students can't complete assigned tasks outside of school, even when the device is available?
More populated areas such as Hamilton County have more options than rural areas, experts say.
The city of Chattanooga has free Wi-Fi at all of its Youth and Family Development centers and recreation centers.
Several years ago, businesses in Red Bank joined forces and allowed students to use their public Wi-Fi during the day, said Hamilton County Chief of Schools Justin Robertson.
Others, like public libraries, often offer access, but in places like Polk County, a library can be a 30-45-minute drive for students.
So educators adapt as well as they can.
Greg Bagby, coordinator of instructional technology for Hamilton County Schools, runs professional development for teachers on how to introduce and use technology in the classroom. Last year, Superintendent Bryan Johnson launched a one-to-one initiative in middle schools that provides every student a Chromebook. For the 2019-20 school year, the district plans to expand the one-to-one program to high schools.
Bagby said students often use Google applications such as Google Docs, which can run offline and update when they reconnect to internet at school.
Goodman said Polk County educators have done the same.
"The biggest way that we have tried to tackle that with the students and give them access is we have found lots of apps that can run remotely," Goodman said. "If we have students that were doing things that had to be done outside the classroom, the students would have to make sure that when they left the school that they are logged in to their particular apps."
Polk County explored investing in mobile hotspots and checking them out to students, but because of the infrastructure needs of the rural area, "they can't boost when there's nothing to boost" and the hotspots themselves have no way to connect.
Bagby said he doesn't think access to connections outside of school is a barrier to students yet, but as Hamilton County increases the number of devices available, it will become one.
"I don't think it's a barrier at this time because teachers aren't using the technology the way they can be leveraging it. With one-to-one I think yes, it will become a barrier," he said.
Millener said organizations in Chattanooga continue to look for ways to increase digital equity. In many low-income communities, "mobile only" access is the first step.
Educators often argue that completing homework or research on cellphones is not beneficial to students, though, and Millener agrees.
"Mobile only access is not sufficient, we know that," he said. "Broadband is essential infrastructure. We have to be more creative in allowing people and allowing organizations to connect."
He said lack of broadband issues have greater implications outside of education — it is detrimental to public health and telemedicine access, it can isolate the elderly and stunt economic development. It can even affect quality of life for those who can't connect with their families by watching the latest Netflix blockbuster or connect with friends online.
But Goodman said that he feels like some areas are making progress. Polk County's Verizon technology grant was recently extended for another two years.
Polk County used its iPads to enhance instruction as well as teach "soft" or employable skills like using the technology, being creative and innovative, and communicating with it to their students.
In 2018, Google installed Wi-Fi on six school buses in Clarksville, as part of its Rolling Study Halls pilot program. Early results of similar programs in North Carolina and South Carolina indicate promising gains in reading and math proficiency, and increased digital fluency, according to Google.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn have both expressed the importance of improving broadband access in rural areas of the state.
Schwinn told the Times Free Press that as the department creates its new strategic plan, part of it will include how to support school districts that need help connecting students, whether that's providing training, connecting schools to grant opportunities or supporting better infrastructure.
"We're making strides, we still need to make more strides, but overall we're moving," Goodman said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @memangrum.
Percentage of Households with Broadband Access
Tennessee average: 72.6%
Bradley County: 73.5%
Coffee County: 65.1%
Franklin County: 64.9%
Grundy County: 58.9%
Hamilton County: 74.8%
Marion County: 63.6%
McMinn County: 63.4%
Meigs County: 57.2%
Polk County: 63.3%
Rhea County: 60.2%
Sequatchie County: 69%
Source: Associated Press analysis of census data