The COVID-19 pandemic exposed several inequalities within our education system, but perhaps none stood out more than the massive technology gaps that exist across America. When school buildings shut down students were forced to learn from home. Computers and internet connection became essential, yet millions of families lacked access to these tools. The digital divide – an issue too often viewed as a mere inconvenience turned into a national crisis and one that policymakers could no longer ignore.
The numbers are staggering. Nearly 17 million children remain logged out from instruction at home because their families do not have home internet necessary to support online learning, a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.” And those disproportionally impacted are students of color, students from low-income families, and children living in rural communities.
In February, Stride, Inc. hosted the National Forum on Education Equity where we discussed actions needed to address the disparities caused by the digital divide. William Kennard, former Chairman of the FCC and current Chairman of the Board of AT&T, struck an optimistic tone when he said there is growing bipartisan interest in infrastructure legislation with a focus on internet connectivity. The good news, said Kennard, is that broadband is now considered part of the "fundamental infrastructure for our country.”
Fortunately, we are seeing a momentum shift in Washington, DC. The Biden Administration recently introduced a national infrastructure plan which, among other priorities, calls for revitalizing America’s digital ecosystem with a goal to achieve broadband access for all. According to President Biden, universal access to high-speed internet is the “new electricity.” He is absolutely right.
Not long after the Biden Administration plan was released, Republicans on Capitol Hill outlined an infrastructure plan that also made broadband a primary element.
Although substantial differences exist, it is encouraging that both the Democratic and Republican proposals make innovative broadband connectivity a centerpiece of American infrastructure. They may differ on the vehicle, but they agree on the destination: a country where every person has equal access to reliable, high speed internet.
Stride’s Kevin P. Chavous and former Congressman George Miller, who previously chaired the House Education and Labor Committee, recently wrote that in a 21st century economy, our education system must ensure every student has access to computers and the means to access high quality digital content at school or home.
This is a critical point. If students don’t have hardware (computers and mobile devices) or education software (digital content and curriculum), internet access becomes irrelevant. What’s the use of running electricity to a house with no lights or appliances? Same with teacher training. If teachers are not given the skills and knowledge on the effective use of digital content and best practices in online instruction, then they will struggle, and student outcomes will suffer. But internet connectivity is the entry point. Without it, students and teachers simply cannot engage in any meaningful digital learning.
If we want to expand innovative education opportunities and achieve equity for disadvantaged students, we must permanently eliminate the digital divide. Internet infrastructure is critical to America’s education infrastructure.
On this issue, Congress and the Biden Administration have an opportunity to find common ground on behalf of America’s students. It will take cooperation between the government and private sector and bipartisan leadership in Washington, DC, but it can be done.
Now is the time to act.
Nate Davis is Executive Chairman of the Board of Stride, Inc.To learn more about Stride, Inc., visit https://www.stridelearning.com/