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Legislators need to stand up for 'the helpers' working for children

Legislators need to stand up for 'the helpers' working for children
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Until just recently, I, like many others across the globe, was desperate for silver linings. At the outset of this crisis, the uncertainty and fear that encircled us all made the pursuit of silver linings seem eminently human — so when I found one that I liked, to dull the panic, I latched on and carried it with me. It wasn’t until recently that I let it go.

My silver lining of choice was likely the one most parents choose: With a few tragic exceptions, this virus has largely spared our children. But the measures we have implemented to spare our more vulnerable adults, including shutting down schools and shifting to distance learning, risk imposing intolerable costs on our economically disadvantaged children.

According to the United Nations, “Economic hardship experienced by families as a result of the global economic downturn could result in hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020, reversing the last 2 to 3 years of progress in reducing infant mortality within a single year.” The report goes on to state that “An estimated 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year, adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty in 2019.”

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In the U.S., where 14 percent of families with school aged children cannot afford one meal with meat, fish, or a vegetarian equivalent every second day, the largest single spike in unemployment in our country’s history will inevitably jeopardize the health of young people in every state. To make matters worse, without school lunch — a foundational tool to combat youth food insecurity, attributable to educational improvements in classrooms worldwide — the intellectual growth of our children is at dire risk.

For underserved children in the U.S., COVID-19 has exposed that — as with access to good schools generally — distance learning is a luxury for the students of families who can afford it. As of last year, nearly 12 million children nationwide lived in homes without broadband access. A survey commissioned by Microsoft and the National 4-H Council found that 20 percent of rural youth lack access to broadband at home, regardless of whether it's available where they live.

In this moment of great need, if we fail to sufficiently invest in the protections needed to inoculate our kids from the dangers they face, many will face those dangers alone. This is a scary reality, so I’ve tried my best to heed the call of Fred Rogers’ Mother, Nancy Rogers, to “look for the helpers.”

Unsurprisingly, I found that the helpers are everywhere.

For instance, Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders, has begun to answer the call by distributing 5 million meals to kids in Chicago, raising funds for the purchase of 50,000 Chromebooks for kids in Philadelphia, and investing in 30,000 computers and 3,500 hotspots in San Antonio, where 46 percent of students do not have a computer, tablet, or access to the internet outside of school. 

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The men and women of Chiefs for Change are not alone. The helpers are everywhere — but they need help from elected leaders who have heretofore failed to proportionately invest in preventative solutions. And in the era of $2 trillion spending bills, it’s not as if the money isn’t available.

For example, youth advocates fighting for increased student access to distance learning technologies have called for $2 billion in funds via the FCC’s E-Rate program, originally designed to bring broadband internet to schools and libraries across America. So far, after having spent more than $2 trillion, Congress and the FCC have failed to put these available funds into action, preventing vast school purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, laptops and tablets that students can use at home.

In a 2018 interview with NPR, U.S. historian Jon Meacham stated that America’s “best moments have come when voices far from power — reformers, protesters, those who have been on the margins — have forced the powerful to take notice.” In staring down the barrel of this crisis without much of the world noticing, young people need helpers — reformers, protesters, those who have been on the margins — to force the powerful to take notice, now more than ever.

Casey Mindlin is the Director of Partnerships for Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books. Mindlin previously served as Director of Business Development and Legislative Associate for the lobbying firm American Continental Group. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a BA in Political Science.