COVID-19 is a wake-up call to close the digital divide

COVID-19 is a wake-up call to close the digital divide
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When the spread of COVID-19 sent more than 50 million school children home to finish the winter semester online, the “chickens came home to roost.” Our years-long failure to ensure universal access to essential internet service means that millions of kids aren’t getting the same educational opportunity as their peers. Congress and the Trump administration can fix this in their next emergency response to the deadly pandemic — and they must.

There are kids being left behind everywhere, from big cities to rural communities. In Philadelphia, online classes were delayed because of concerns over unequal access to the internet at home. Similar scenes played out around the country, including Seattle and California. In Washington, D.C., officials estimate that 30 percent of students lack adequate access to the internet and proper devices at home. And in communities across the country, teachers have scrambled to assemble paper packets to help their unconnected students keep up.

This is not just an embarrassment in the richest country on earth, although it is that. The digital divide, also known as the Homework Gap, exacerbates economic inequality and lack of opportunity and it curtails access to health care and pandemic information, applying for critical benefits, and job training, just at the time people need them most. As you read this column, you might be working from home, on the internet, planning for an upcoming doctor’s appointment, via the internet, or searching for toilet paper or Clorox wipes, on the internet. Ask yourself how students are expected to keep up with their basic math, reading and science from home without broadband service and a modern device. They cannot.  

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The digital divide is inexcusable. Nearly 12 million children nationwide continue to live in homes without a broadband connection. A 2019 Common Sense nationwide survey of teachers revealed troubling evidence of the continuing homework gap. But it is by no means unsolvable. While private companies are taking positive steps to plug some holes, and those are appreciated, they are insufficient to meet the need and they serve to highlight the absence of a comprehensive national policy.

So what will it take to once and for all close the homework gap? We need a short-term and a long-term investment to connect all students.

First, Congress and the administration missed a chance to help students with online learning last month. In its $2.2 trillion COVID-19 rescue package, it could not dedicate even $1 in direct funding to connect kids at home, costing students and their families unnecessary aggravation and lost time. In the next emergency package, being planned right now and potentially as large as the previous one, Congress and the president should include between $2 billion and $5 billion for the E-Rate program that enables rural and urban schools and libraries to connect to the internet, and it should allow them to connect kids at home and ensure they have a tablet or other device to do their school work. 

Congress should also invest $1 billion to $2 billion for emergency broadband service to ensure low-income families have enough connectivity at a price they can afford during this crisis to meet their health care and economic needs. And Congress should take additional steps to close the rural digital divide for education and health care.

In the long term, Congress should finish the job that was called for in the National Broadband Plan and ensure, once and for all, that we are the internet-connected United States of America. When Congress and the president are ready to adopt a national-scale infrastructure program, a major broadband plan must be part of it to the tune of tens of billions of dollars that will be invaluable to our economy and people’s lives.

America is staring down its most challenging crisis in modern memory and there is much we need to do together to get through it and come out of it stronger. The health and safety of every one of us, of course, is the top priority. But connecting all students and their families on the internet now is critical during this crisis and for the future. 

James P. Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit to help parents and teachers navigate their children’s digital lives. Follow him on Twitter @jimsteyer.