Shelly Bautista teaches Pre-K at Carson Street Elementary, which serves a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles where at least 85 percent of students are English-language learners.
When schools there closed last month, with the uncertainty of when they would open up again, Shelly sprang into action. “That first week, there was no mandate on distance learning and there were lots of unknowns. So I started to put together a plan, and the first resource I thought of was PBS SoCal, because I knew they’d have educational content that any family could access.”
In a matter of weeks, childhood in America has changed dramatically. Every school has closed its doors. More than 55 million PreK-12 students are out of classrooms and unable to play sports, spend time with friends or go to the playground. Parents who never considered homeschooling are bracing themselves for months of managing their normal day-to-day schedules alongside lesson plans.
Much has been written in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic about the holes in America’s safety net. When it comes to education, the concern is mounting as to whether school closures will exacerbate the inequities that children from low-income and rural homes face every day.
Private companies like Google, DreamBox Learning, Audible and others have laudably stepped up to provide free services to support distance learning in this moment of need. But, as with other inequities in our society, not everyone has access to those services, as 25 million Americans don’t have broadband at home. And even among those households with broadband, many lack sufficient access to the devices used for distance learning.
Fortunately, thanks to America’s 50-year investment in public television — through public funding, as well as countless individuals and organizations who support PBS and their local stations — PBS was ready to jump in when the very first school closed its doors.
When PBS and our member stations launched a PBS KIDS 24/7 channel three years ago; we made it available to every home with an antenna or internet connection. With schools now shuttered, that service is especially vital to low-income and rural communities. When children watch PBS KIDS shows like “Odd Squad” and “Molly of Denali,” they’re gaining important school readiness and social-emotional skills that will position them for future success.
We’ve also seen record-breaking numbers of people visiting the PBS LearningMedia website, a trove of free digital resources (including videos, images, interactives, lesson plans and more) available to PreK-12 educators and students nationwide. Our traffic more than doubled last month, with more than 2.5 million unique visitors to the site. Every resource on PBS LearningMedia — from lesson plans about the Vietnam War in Ken Burns’s epic documentary to videos about volcanoes by NOVA — is aligned to state and national education standards.
But the real power of public media can be seen at the state and local levels, where PBS’s 330 locally owned and locally operated stations are tailoring their services to meet the needs of communities. During times like these, those stations become hubs of community service, providing educational fare as well as reliable information and updates about COVID-19 — from understanding how the virus is affecting their neighbors, to getting tips on how to talk to their children about the pandemic.
Despite facing strained resources and funding challenges, public television stations are stepping up to help their communities fill education gaps. Arizona PBS is broadcasting educational programming around the English language arts, social studies, science and math for all K-12 grade levels, while Arkansas PBS is working with the state’s education department to develop resources for students while schools are closed. And in Los Angeles, where Shelly Bautista teaches, the Los Angeles Unified School District partnered with PBS SoCal and KCET to launch all-day educational programming for 700,000 students within just one week.
As education has moved from the classroom and into the home, teachers and parents across the country are turning to public media to help bolster children’s learning.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, he said: “I believe the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as television and radio, and to enlist them in the cause of education.” That has been our call to action ever since PBS went on air in 1970. From the children who grew up on “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to those who watch “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” today, generations of children have devoured the fruits of healthy, meaningful programs that spark imaginations and foster a lifelong love of learning.
We never expected that a global health pandemic would mark our 50th year. But in many ways, PBS was made for this moment. It is in our DNA to educate and inspire, and to provide hope and light during periods of darkness. When it comes to educating our children and ensuring that access to learning is not determined by ZIP code or life circumstances, we will do everything we can to make sure that learning never ends.
Paula Kerger is president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service.