As students throughout Kentucky prepare for a new school year and more remote learning amid a pandemic, the state should view internet access as a public good similar to electricity and school buses, several education and workforce leaders said Monday.
The issue of the Bluegrass State’s “digital divide” was the focus of a Monday briefing featuring former Kentucky education commissioner Wayne Lewis, State Sen. Max Wise and Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.
The Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropy started by the Walmart founders, organized Monday’s briefing.
Hille, who leads the nonprofit focused on economic development in Eastern Kentucky, said internet access is the “modern school bus” that “we’ve got to make sure every kid has the opportunity to get on.”
School buses exist “because we realize that there is a vast public good in ensuring that every student can get an education,” Hille said. “Every child has an equal opportunity to get to that schoolhouse and get that education.”
But when it comes to the internet, Kentucky has lagged in terms of providing access to all children and adults, as Hille and the other leaders pointed out.
The problem not only impacts rural parts of eastern and western Kentucky but also neighborhoods in cities such as Louisville and Lexington, they said.
And it is not only a matter of families lacking the income to pay for high-speed internet.
There is “literally no access” to internet in some parts of the state, said Lewis, the dean of Belmont University’s School of Education who also served as Kentucky’s first Black education commissioner until he was forced out of the role last December.
Recent U.S. Census figures showed that Kentucky ranked 44th in the nation for broadband access, with roughly 25% of households lacking a subscription for high-speed internet and more than 15% of homes not having a computer.
A study from Common Sense Media, a digital access advocacy group, found more than 186,000 students in Kentucky do not have an adequate device for learning at home and over a third of the state’s more than 600,000 students lack high-speed internet access.
As school districts across the commonwealth prepare to start the 2020-21 school year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with in-person or online learning, or a mix of both, the connectivity problem could come to a head, the leaders said Monday.
Lewis said in order to “ensure that a family’s economic situation doesn’t inhibit a child’s ability to learn, I think we’re talking about a paradigm shift.”
“If we were to hear that a child doesn’t have access to electricity in the home, we think about all of the repercussions for that and how that would impact his or her daily living and impact his or her access to the learning,” Lewis said. “… I think we’re in a place in 2020 where we are going to have to start to think about internet access similarly to the way we think about electricity (and) access to electricity.”
Following the state’s first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in March, Kentucky’s school districts were forced to close and pivot to virtual or nontraditional instruction.
Wise, a Campbellsville Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said “no one could have predicted” that schools would end up needing to continue remote learning for as long as they have during the pandemic.
Some families have had to drive their children to “a parking lot outside of a fast food restaurant” in order to access Wi-Fi, Wise said.
The state senator noted that about 80% of residents living in the seven counties included in his south central Kentucky district have internet connections..
But traveling just a few miles, some of the “hills and also the hollers” in his district reveals areas in which the residents “have some very difficult times” in getting online access, Wise added.
As for solutions to the accessibility gap, Wise and Hille brought up the role of private internet service providers and KentuckyWired, the state’s much-delayed and controversial plan to run more than 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cable in every county.
The project’s troubled and expensive history, coupled with state budget challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, have left some lawmakers considering “pulling the plug” on KentuckyWired, Wise said.
“But after so much money’s been put into it,” Wise said, “how much are we going to continue to invest (and) then also see the fruits of the rewards?”
Private businesses have worked with some school districts to provide Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to students, as the three leaders noted Monday.
The federal government can also help states like Kentucky in solving the internet access problem, they said.
But that will require agreement between Democrats and Republicans over the fifth round of coronavirus stimulus funding.
In their $3.4 trillion proposal, Democrats include $60 billion to reopen K-12 schools, compared to $70 billion in the $1.1 trillion GOP bill, with Republicans also tying the education aid to schools resuming in-person instruction.
Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, received more than $30 million from a federal COVID-19 relief bill passed in March.
JCPS said it would use a chunk of that money to purchase thousands of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students in need.
‘Pandemic pods’ and home schooling:Kentucky parents consider options for the fall
But more help is needed, leaders have said, with Wise mentioning Monday how providing laptops and the needed technology to kids is the “No. 1 concern” for Kentucky’s superintendents.
Hille said rural Jackson County has done a “remarkable job” in providing high-speed internet to every household, showing that there is hope for Kentucky’s poorer areas.
Leaders could look to the 1930s New Deal and its rural electrification efforts for inspiration in solving Kentucky’s internet divide in order to allow all residents to participate in the economy, education and civic life, Hille added.
“We need a new deal for Eastern Kentucky that’s going to support getting the … essential services out to the last mountain and to all of our homes and all of our families,” Hille said.
Hille also reiterated his call for internet providers to simply provide free service to everyone in rural Kentucky in order to shrink the state’s digital divide.
“Let’s let everybody drive on the information superhighway. Let’s take down the toll booths. Let’s flip the switch,” Hille said. “Let’s let that access be made available to every household and every kid so that all of our kids can do well.”
Website of source