As an educator, I learned early on that relationships are key to learning. I’ve always genuinely looked forward to coming to school, greeting my students by name with a fist bump, and tapping into their individual interests to make science come alive for them.
The school closures caused by COVID-19 have changed all of that. Now, instead of coming to my classroom, students are coming to my Google Meets. But the need for caring, trusting relationships is still just the same. Just the other day, I spent three hours in a Google Meet session with a student as he completed his work. I asked why he wanted me to be “here” with him. He responded, “I must admit that I miss you, Mr. Brown. It’s just good to know that you’re still there.”
Unfortunately, not all my students are able to participate in these crucial face-to-face interactions because of a simple barrier: Internet access. As I have connected with families, I’ve heard the same thing from several parents: “Mr. Brown, I want my child to do your work, but we just don’t have access to the internet.” Certain internet providers are offering free or discounted internet services, but there are many restrictions: Many providers exclude many families based on previous debts, geographic location, proof of income and history of service. These barriers make accessing the internet difficult or impossible for already overwhelmed families.
Philadelphia has the second-lowest household internet access rate of any major city in the country. Unsurprisingly, the School District of Philadelphia has struggled to overcome the challenges of internet accessibility, having to backtrack after widespread criticism for suggesting students go to school parking lots to access lessons. The district has done everything in its power to close the digital divide, working with generous benefactors to ensure every student receives a Chromebook and working to acquire Wi-Fi hotspots for those who need them.
Unfortunately, the district has limited power and resources to address the lack of internet access across our city. For too long, our most underfunded and under-resourced districts have carried the burden of providing everything for their students. Lack of support from the federal government has created huge inequities that this pandemic is laying bare, and urban districts can’t address these inequities alone.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has suggested that The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expand upon their "Keep Americans Connected Pledge" in order to ensure internet access for all Americans. While many corporations have signed on, they have not eliminated the restrictions that limit access to the very people the pledge is intended to help. The FCC must intervene now and broker these partnerships to serve every household in need. We do not need another half-hearted pledge to check off some boxes; we need tangible intervention that provides internet access to all Americans.
The U.S. Department of Education should also be taking the lead on expanding students’ access to virtual learning. The department has given limited guidance to schools on how to transition to remote learning, and the funds allocated for schools in the CARES Act, including funds to help schools expand internet access, will take weeks or even months to reach schools.
Every day our students go without internet access is a lost day of learning. The Department of Education must work with districts and states to streamline the process for receiving funds, advocate for greater funding in the next phase of relief packages, and coordinate with other federal agencies like the FCC to make universal internet access a top priority.
Schools and districts can’t solve these problems alone. Without the intervention of the federal government, academic growth will be stunted, social-emotional development cannot occur and our society will continue to unabashedly relegate our lower-income families to second-class citizenship status.
I implore all Americans, regardless of your background or identity, to advocate for the federal government to ensure every student has access to internet connectivity. Call the FCC. Email the U.S. Department of Education. Sign petitions. Just as my student felt comforted by my remote presence, let’s work to ensure all students can share that same feeling by overcoming one hurdle: Internet access.