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Blog: Connectivity is Everything

All the Distance Learning Tools in the World Don’t Matter if Kids Can’t Get Online

Now that distance learning is virtually the only learning happening, all levels of government must shift into high gear to ensure that every child in America who needs Internet connectivity has it.

School districts and charter schools across the country are doing their best to distribute laptops and Chromebooks to millions of students forced out of class by the coronavirus. But 14 percent of children have no internet access at home, including nearly 20 percent of black and Latinxstudents and 37 percent of Native American students.

A recent Microsoft survey found that three-quarters of a million Montana households lack Internet access. On American Indian reservations or tribal lands, just over half of Native Americans have access to high-speed internet servicecompared to 82 percent of households nationally.

Census data shows that 29 percent of Cleveland households have no internet access. Pew Researchers found in a 2018 survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, one in fiveteens said they often or sometimes can’t complete assignments because they don’t have reliable access to the internet or a computer.

Predictably, some school districts are holding back from providing any distance learning because they can’t ensure that every child has access to it—a decision the New York Post has already labeled “progressive lunacy.”

For instance, Philadelphia’s superintendent told his teachers they could not require students to log on and could not grade work done online or by phone because they “cannot ensure students equal access to technology. One wonders what this means for high school students who need course credits and GPA scores for college admission.

An affluent suburban Seattle district invested in Wi-Fi “hotspots” to loan to students without internet at home, then halted the effort for similar reasons.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, a public elementary school foundation planned to give money to every family at its school and a neighboring school that needed it for Wi-Fi access, a laptop, or food. The school district would not allow it.

We have to agree with the Post: This is lunacy. We should be rolling out connectivity for all as we begin distance learning, not giving up.

The federal and state departments of education need to make clear to every district in America that they don’t have to deny education to every child just because they can’t provide it equally to all. Then they should start funding a massive effort tomake it universal. After urging from Democratic Senators Michael Bennet, Edward Markey, Brian Schatz and others, the Federal Communications Commissionon Wednesday announced a waiver of federal E-rate rules. Under the E-rate program, until September 30th service providers can give free equipment and services—such as mobile hotspots, improved connections, and connected devices—to schools.

In addition, Comcastand other providersare giving free Wi-Fi and the modems and routers needed to access it to low-income families in its service areas for the next 60 days.

Congress and the states should add more funding. Districts are scrambling to design and deploy distance learning programs, while simultaneously ensuringthat children who depend on school for nutrition don’t go hungry.

With state and federal aid, they should go into overdrive to ensure that every child can log on, at adequate speed.

For those outside of areas where free Wi-Fi is on offer, it is time to get creative. As far back as 2014, one district outfitted school buses with Wi-Fi routers and deployed them after hours to park in remote neighborhoods. In this way, California’s Coachella Valley Unified School Districtone of the nation’s poorest, spanning 1,200 miles of mountains and valleyswas able to get all of its students online outside of school.

Some rural districts, like Santa Fe, already have Wi-Fi on school buses that make long drives to transport rural students, so the kids can do homework while making the long commute. The U.S. currently has about 480,000 school busesmore than enough to bring Wi-Fi to all 21.3 million offline Americans. And it has almost as many bus drivers—now sitting home with little to do— who could help.

In 2014, the driver of one of Coachella’s buses, Darryl Adams told the Hechinger Report, “Come on! We can do better than this as a nation, especially for our low-income families and our disadvantaged families.’’ 

Surely, in this most extraordinary of times, we not only can do betterwe must.

Tressa Pankovits is Associate director at Reinventing America’s Schools project at Progressive Policy Institute

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