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School’s Out: A COVID-19 Lesson

We’re progressing from a homework gap to a full-on education gap.

Before the pandemic, we knew there was a digital divide in America. But for many, the issue was abstract, unimaginable or simply not their problem.

Enter COVID-19. The need to close the divide can no longer be ignored because students of all ages are locked out from school – not just because of the virus itself, but from lack of an internet connection at home.

Back in 2017, the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee reported that nearly 12 million children lived in homes without a broadband connection, but the problem made few headlines. For the kids on the wrong side of the digital divide, either their families have chosen not to pay for an internet subscription — usually because it costs too much or they don’t see it as worthwhile — or neither fiber nor a cell signal reaches their homes.

The following year, the Pew Research Center found that 15% of U.S. households with school-age children did not have a high-speed connection at home. The study found that 1 in 4 low-income teens lacked access to a home computer. Still, the alarm bells didn’t sound.

Now that students must participate in online learning, it is like a tale of two cities — one where students are engaged and keeping up their grades online, and another where students have no or limited access to the internet. We are progressing from a homework gap to a full-on education gap for children in every community in the nation.

We Need Equal Broadband Access for Everyone

In a recent op-ed for the Daily News, a teacher shared her frustration that one of her star pupils would not have internet access to take the Advanced Placement exam. The best quick fix anyone could come up with was that the student should use the free Wi-Fi at McDonald’s. An honor student was faced with losing not only opportunities to decrease her college tuition with AP credits but also her competitive edge. Unfortunately, countless students face similar challenges.

I’ve personally met many adults who also sat in their cars in parking lots, lingered in coffee shops or perched outside library doors to gain access to the internet in order to get an education. Is dedication important? Yes. But we need broadband for all so there’s an even playing field and no one is forced to go to extremes to compete.

While attending school in person is not currently an option in many communities, how do we prioritize bringing high-speed internet to rural students and urban students whose households remain unconnected? And post-pandemic, how do we ensure kids don’t have to be away from home to do homework?


The Cruelest Part of the Digital Divide

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel calls the homework gap “the cruelest part of the digital divide,” but we have the policy tools to close it. Beyond encouraging continued private investment in infrastructure, we need to fix our safety nets to protect those who can’t afford access and fill the gaps where people can’t access connectivity. This will take dollars.

To that end, we need to know specifically where broadband internet access is lacking in America. Congress needs to give the FCC the resources — estimated at about $65 million — that it needs to be able to improve its broadband coverage maps. Next, based on those new coverage maps, Congress should provide the necessary funds required to connect every household in America that is unserved.

The solutions are within reach and the payoff of expanding access to broadband (and, therefore, education) would be enormous.

The call to action is clear here: Give all of America’s youth the digital tools they need. Adults have long needed broadband as an economic lifeline, but we should be able to finally get this done for our kids, many of whom are suffering on a whole new level during the pandemic.

The homework gap is no longer just about work to be done outside of class. It’s about being left out of class altogether.

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