There is no end in sight to COVID-19. With a continued need for distance learning in many cities and countless families still lacking basic internet service, the return to school this fall is more complicated than it has ever been.
In the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, they’re running new fiber optic cables from traffic lights to deliver internet to neighborhoods where families can’t get online. In Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District, a company is installing transmitter-receivers on school rooftops to beam over-the-air internet to students within a two- to three-mile radius. In Cleveland, Ohio, the district is working with a nonprofit internet provider that offers low-cost service. In Chicago and Philadelphia, the school systems launched ambitious collaborations to give all families in need an internet connection. In Mississippi, the department of education secured funding for a statewide initiative to help ensure every student has home internet access and a device for online learning. And in Arizona, the Phoenix Union High School District is partnering on a major initiative to blanket the entire city with free Wi-Fi.
This is the kind of ingenuity that exists in systems led by changemakers across the country, such as our members at Chiefs of Change, who are invested in getting students on a path to success. Yet despite the truly heroic efforts in some communities, 17 million children in our country still do not have the technology and connectivity they need. The pandemic has made painfully obvious to the broader public what many in education have long known: Access to the internet is a necessity. Patchwork solutions in individual cities and states are not enough. It is time to treat the internet as the essential service it is. The federal government must take immediate action and work with companies to provide reliable, universal Wi-Fi.
Talks in Congress about a new COVID-19 relief package broke down in early August, creating additional instability and uncertainty for schools just as the new academic year gets underway. Although the $13.5 billion in K-12 emergency relief funding approved in March can be used for technology—along with a host of other priorities that have become increasingly urgent amid the pandemic—much more help is needed. Lawmakers have proposed various ideas, including allowing districts to use federal E-rate funds, traditionally reserved for schools and libraries, to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots that can be loaned to students. Regardless of the approach, what matters most is that we solve the problem once and for all—and that we do it now.
America’s students cannot wait any longer. For months, too many kids have been without the laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi they need to learn from home. This is particularly harmful for our most vulnerable children, including students of color, those from low-income families, English learners, and children with special needs. The president and Congress have a responsibility to help fix this. If they fail to act, students will suffer—and those who were already struggling are likely to fall even further behind.
A number of emergency stopgap steps have been taken across the country, such as providing families with laptops, tablets, and hotspot cards to ensure they have the right tools at their disposal and searching for grants that can help school districts cover the tremendous, unforeseen costs of this at-home learning support. At least one district decided to move forward with a bond election, asking voters to support a measure for the purchase of essential technology. Even further, some districts launched emergency operations to connect kids by equipping school buses with hotspots and parking them in neighborhoods where families did not have Wi-Fi; other districts are negotiating temporary agreements with service providers to get kids online at home or safely to locations with free Wi-Fi.
But these measures were not supposed to become our long-term solutions as the pandemic wore on. We’re not supposed to be seeing kids standing outside a Taco Bell trying to get internet access five months later.
Two weeks after the first schools closed in March, I participated in a phone call with the vice president and the secretary of education, where I shared many of these stories and urged the administration to support the funding and flexibility needed to end the digital divide. I sent the same message to the FCC chairman and Congress. And throughout the summer, our chiefs have continued to outline the immense, ongoing technology challenges as they speak with their communities and testify at congressional hearings focused on reopening schools.
By this point, the problem is clear—and so are the consequences of failing to solve it. It is also obvious that education leaders, teachers, and others in individual communities are doing their part. The federal government must do its part too. As kids head back to school, let’s make sure they have the technology they need—to attend class online when school buildings are closed, to do their homework online when school buildings are open, and to access the wealth of information that’s available to help them succeed in today’s modern world.
Mike Magee is CEO of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders who oversee systems that collectively serve more than 7 million students.