The teachers are prepared, online classes are about to start, but not every student is ready to log on. Some families can’t afford internet at home, pushing students to find creative solutions to continue learning.

One student who got stuck in a lockdown while visiting family in Hubei province, the epicenter of the epidemic, had to set up a desk on his balcony so he could connect his phone to his neighbor’s Wi-Fi, Yangcheng Evening News reported. In Xichuan, Henan, another student took his phone to the rooftop where he said his neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal was the strongest, according to Pear Video.

As the coronavirus epidemic keeps Chinese campuses shut for weeks, grade schools and colleges alike are turning to virtual classrooms to keep classes going. Students are asked to tune in to live-streamed lessons from phone apps, type out queries in real-time messages, and submit homework by WeChat. But this is harder for some than others as a result of China’s stark digital divide.

“In the class that I teach, there are three students who still can’t attend live-streamed lessons because they don’t have Wi-Fi at home,” said Wu Danhong, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law who blogs with the pen name Wu Fatian.

A student watches a math lesson on a phone in Yinchuan, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on February 17. (Picture: Feng Kaihua/Xinhua)

Online classes have become a quick solution for teachers grappling with the results of a deadly contagion that hit the country hard and fast. China’s Ministry of Education encourages schools to adopt internet lessons to keep millions of students occupied amid indefinite class suspensions. It also launched a “national cloud learning platform.” But some people are now questioning whether the fervent drive to push classes online might leave some students behind.

One teacher on the outskirts of the port city of Tianjin described her challenge in trying to make sure all her students can attend online classes.

“We are a rural school, and when we decided to do online classes we looked into everyone’s situation,” she wrote on Weibo.

“There were single parents who remarried and left their kids to the grandparents with no smartphone or internet. The school had to call multiple times to fix that. One student’s parents were mentally handicapped and didn’t have internet or a smartphone. Our team helped borrow one from her relatives and linked it up to a neighbor’s Wi-Fi.”

While some 854 million people in China have access to the internet, more people in the country have been surfing the web on smartphones and tablets than on PCs since 2014. But for some disadvantaged families, data plans don’t come cheap. The cost of streaming hours of online classes on a smartphone can add up quickly, and not everyone has broadband or Wi-Fi at home.

A high school student who lives in a remote town on the Tibetan Plateau told Chinese media Shenwang that she has no computers or broadband internet at home. Her family’s connection with the outside world depends mostly on a smartphone with sporadic 4G connectivity, which she now uses to learn English on Kuaishou, a short video app similar to TikTok.

Another student in Jinan, Shandong, shares a smartphone with her mom, who uses it to take online orders for their family-owned restaurant. Her parents said she once missed a homework deadline after a particularly busy evening for the business. 

One high school student estimated that without an unlimited data plan, taking five to six hours of internet classes each day -- in addition to uploading photos of homework and interacting with teachers -- costs about 60 to 70 yuan (US$8.60 to $10) a day -- not a small sum for some families.

A primary school teacher records an online English lesson in Yinchuan, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on February 17. (Picture: Yang Zhisen/Xinhua)

To narrow the digital divide, some schools are reportedly subsidizing internet plans for some students. The China University of Petroleum (Huadong) says it partnered with network providers to give 30GB monthly data plans to more than 1,800 students who don’t have broadband or Wi-Fi at home. Chang'an University says it’s giving 100 yuan (US$14) to more than 3,000 disadvantaged students.

Others have reverted to older technology.

Late last month, China’s state broadcaster CCTV began airing televised classes for primary school students in partnership with the Ministry of Education. Authorities say the move is designed to limit the time children spend online, protect their eyesight, and prevent excessive traffic from overwhelming online learning platforms. An official says the satellite TV network should be able to cover rural villages and other remote areas.