Sarah Kelsey is an instructional coordinator at Greenup County School District in eastern Kentucky. Her school population is mostly rural and internet access is limited. “The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a lot of unequal learning experiences for our students,” Kelsey said. “About 25 percent of our students don’t have access to internet, which is causing a great deal of students to fall behind.”
The experience of Greenup County Schools is unacceptable, but unfortunately all too common. At a time when access to educational opportunities are so critical for long-term success, an estimated 17 million students in unserved and underserved communities lack the connectivity that makes distance learning possible. And new research from the Morning Consult shows that while more than three quarters of parents and teachers are concerned about today’s homework gap, more than 70 percent also expect the traditional classroom learning environment to rely more heavily on technology after the pandemic.
If we think this is a problem just for parents, we are wrong. Policymakers and business leaders should also be concerned. The digital divide has been with us for much too long, and now poses a crisis to education that threatens an entire generation of leaders and innovators.
The stakes are high, and Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy online learning platform, described them to us: “Even when the school districts, the cities and the local telecom carriers have done heroic efforts to get kids internet access, there are still 10-15% of the kids that are disengaged. If we don’t really engage them, we are going to see long-term consequences for economic viability.” (Khan Academy is among our collaborators as we work to bridge the homework gap by providing free services, devices and educational content to schools and communities.)
AT&T is helping by providing free hotspots and internet to students around the country. Earlier this year we provided Sarah Kelsey’s district in Greenup, Ky., and more than 100 organizations and schools with free wireless hotspots and connectivity as part of our $10 million Connected Nation commitment. And today AT&T is committing more than $2 billion to deepen our relationships while expanding affordability and subsidies over the next three years to help bridge the digital divide.
Private sector collaborations and initiatives like these play an important role in addressing aspects of the homework gap. But at the end of the day, this is a public policy issue that demands decisive action.
Luckily, policymakers don’t need to start from scratch. They could start by modernizing one program that was designed to address an earlier version of the digital divide—modeling it on one of the country’s more successful social benefits programs.
The Federal Communications Commission created the Lifeline program more than 40 years ago to help low-income families afford basic telephone services. Lifeline was amended in 2016 to support broadband, but it remains underutilized by those eligible , with consumers and providers hindered by logistical processes and record keeping. Many of you probably don’t even know the program exists, though you help fund it through a whopping 31% surcharge on your phone bill.
Policymakers can modernize the Lifeline program by modeling on the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known for its signature physical food stamps, SNAP now provides beneficiaries with benefits electronically and enables digital payments with a debit card. The program is ubiquitous and allows families to pay for food using the same point-of-sale terminals as non-SNAP customers.
We agree with the President’s goal of connecting every American with broadband. American businesses already spend billions each year to connect the underserved because we believe in economic opportunities for all, and we need the talent these students will bring our companies. But sustained support for our nation’s most vulnerable requires our government to intercede. Congress could act now to ensure sustainable funding for low income residents by permanently funding Lifeline through congressional appropriations.
Policymakers should continue to incentivize private investment to reach underserved areas and allow for a mix of technologies, including fiber, wireless and satellite, that meet robust performance standards today and in the future. We’ll continue to work with policymakers to modernize our country’s approach to connecting underserved communities with high-speed internet.
As a mother, I empathize with the millions upon millions of moms, dads and caretakers, who over the past year struggled and sacrificed as never before to help their kids succeed in school. And as a business professional, I’m concerned about the quality and diversity of tomorrow’s talent pipeline.
As a nation, all of us in the private and public sector need to honor the struggle of these parents, and awaken to the talent risk before us by taking action to help bridge the digital divide that has dogged our nation for years.
It’s long overdue. But, working together, I believe we can get it done.
Charlene Lake is chief sustainability officer of AT&T, and senior vice president, corporate social responsibility.