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Why being connected really matters for students

Why being connected really matters for students

School leaders and teachers across the country have gone to herculean efforts to transition to distance learning in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. They have provided laptop computers and hotspots to students, developed lesson plans and supported students struggling with food insecurity, depression and anxiety. Educators rallied to do this work because they know that connection matters. Being connected to each other is not only a basic human need but a logistical requirement for successful distance learning. And because of the efforts of educators, many students are already set up for success in this new reality. But as is often the case during a crisis, some of the most vulnerable children – students of color, students with disabilities, immigrant students and those from low-income or rural backgrounds – suffer the most.  

Congress should be applauded for passing a stimulus bill that provides much-needed relief funding for technology grants for schools. Unfortunately, the $2 trillion stimulus package does not go far enough. It does not include a provision that would allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to temporarily allow schools to utilize E-rate funding to provide connectivity, including WiFi hotspots, to students without internet at home. Utilizing the E-rate program is critical to closing the “homework gap” — the gap between students with WiFi at home and the estimated 12 million students who are unable to complete their homework because they do not have internet access at home. 

Sens. Markey (D-Mass.), Bennet (D-Colo.) and Schatz (D-Hawaii) have committed to fighting for this provision in the next relief package. I hope they are successful, as this fight is especially crucial for the students in the 15 states where the majority of rural residents do not have access to broadband.  

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At KIPP Schools, where 88 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, too few students had access to the devices and internet connectivity needed to deliver distance learning quickly and at scale. Launching remote learning, in some cases within 24 hours of school closures, certainly tested our resolve. Our schools across the country rushed to send thousands of devices home and build an online portal for remote learning for all students. 

As a first-generation college graduate from a rural North Carolina community, I know first-hand about the challenges of transitioning to distance learning in rural communities. At our KIPP ENC schools in the Gaston and Halifax area of North Carolina, most students do not have access to internet or devices. It’s not just the students; some teachers do not have internet access either. As a result, KIPP ENC has no other choice but to deliver 2,100 instructional packets every two weeks to students via school bus and then pick them up to be reviewed by teachers. The exchange of physical materials is the best option to make sure students do not fall behind, and the educators of KIPP ENC have been more than willing to rise to the challenge. 

And we’re not the only ones. Schools and districts serving rural communities and low-income communities across the country are finding ways to continue to provide education to students, because we all know that connection matters. I am proud of the way schools and school districts have responded to this crisis. But we cannot expect local communities to do this on their own.  

Congress has taken a first step to ensure that all students have access to school, the education it provides and the community it supports. It’s now time for Congress to take the next step by expanding the E-rate program and allowing all of our students across the country to be connected and to receive the education that we owe them, even in the face of a crisis.

Lorén Cox, PhD., is senior director of policy, advocacy and community engagement at the KIPP Foundation.