End digital divide for students

Students and school districts had to adjust dramatically this spring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The transition from face-to-face education to remote learning was challenging enough given how quickly it had to be enacted, but, for many districts in rural areas, the transition was made nearly impossible by a lack of broadband connectivity in students’ homes.

In Michigan alone, there are 816,000 people without access to broadband internet and 27 counties were at least one-third of residents cannot access true broadband speeds at home. In rural counties like Luce and Montmorency, broadband is virtually non-existent, with broadband being available to just 1.5% and 0.4% of residents, respectively.

That digital divide, which leaves more than 40 million Americans nationwide without access to broadband internet, was already an acute problem for rural educators and students before the pandemic crisis — and has been made a challenge in need of a far more urgent response by the virus.

There are more than 9.7 million students enrolled in rural schools across the country, many of whom lack access to broadband at home. At the same time, pre-COVID-19, more than 70% of teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection.

In ordinary times, that homework gap left too many rural students at a disadvantage that had an impact not only on their educational outcomes, but on their optimism.

A recent poll from the National 4-H Council and Microsoft found that one in six rural teens said they have no access to broadband internet, and another 22% have internet that is only sometimes reliable. The survey found those who lacked broadband internet were less confident about their future and their ability to acquire the kind of job they wanted.

In the 21st century, Michigan students shouldn’t be prevented from achieving their full potential by a lack of access to a necessity like broadband internet that has become as indispensable as electricity to the modern classroom and workplace.

That is why, in the short weeks of summer before school reconvenes in the fall, Washington must take bold and immediate action to completely eliminate the digital divide.

Congress needs to work allocate funds to those unserved and underserved areas where the challenge is the most acute to support broadband deployments that are technology neutral, cost-effective, reliable and which can be quickly deployed. Students in our rural communities cannot wait another five years for broadband connectivity. They need it now.

Those resources must be neutral toward the technology, because, while fiber is the gold standard for speeds, it can also be prohibitively expensive to deploy in rural areas and can rapidly deplete dollars dedicated to broadband deployments, if not paired with innovative wireless solutions that deliver true broadband speeds in hybrid network deployments.

In addition to allocating funding to deploy service in rural areas, Congress must also ensure communities don’t get missed.

That is why lawmakers must also fully fund the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act, a law passed by Congress and signed into law by the president earlier this year. The measure will update how the Federal Communications Commission maps the digital divide to ensure accurate data.

Lawmakers should be commended for passing this important fix, but they must finish the job by funding this legislation so the FCC can implement the changes and better guide public investments to tackle the broadband gap.

In a couple of months, schools will start back up again, and, while many educators are still unsure exactly how learning will look — we know with certainty that it will require access to broadband internet for students to reach their full potential and succeed.

It’s important Washington act now to close the digital divide.

Allen Pratt is the executive director of the National Rural Education Association.


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