Thousands of New York students have been attempting to learn online without internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic, but new legislation seeks to change that.
The E-LEARN act, announced Tuesday by Sens. Shelley Mayer, D-Westchester, John Liu, D-Queens, and Pete Harckham, D-Putnam, would provide free broadband access to every student and school in the state for the duration of the pandemic. That access would be funded by internet service providers.
“We are not complying with the state constitution,” Liu said. “The New York State Constitution requires us to provide a sound basic education for all of the school kids in the state of New York. In this day and age, that is impossible without quality broadband internet access.
“That’s precisely what this bill does,” he said. “It begins to not only imagine, but produce a system that will provide that quality broadband access to all schoolchildren.”
This bill would establish an E-LEARN fund, jointly managed by the State Comptroller and the State Department of Tax and Finance. Internet service providers would be required to make an annual contribution to the fund, based on an assessment of each company’s revenue within New York state.
Once the fund is established, school districts would survey their parents to assess the need for broadband access in their communities and submit documentation of the need to the State Education Department. The SED would be responsible for determining how the money in the E-LEARN fund is allocated.
Schools districts would then contract with internet companies to get broadband access in school buildings and student residences that don’t currently have it. They would either be reimbursed by the E-LEARN fund, or the fund would pay companies directly.
All students ages 5-12 in any kind of educational setting are eligible for this program. The bill would also require internet service providers to reduce the cost of broadband for schools and student residences already under contract to be equal to the average expense per eligible student.
The legislation also includes a provision prohibiting companies from passing the cost of the E-LEARN program onto customers. Because the bill is described as an “extraordinary measure” it would only be in effect during the state of emergency caused by COVID-19.
“There has been much pain and sacrifice during this time,” Mayer said at the announcement. “Now is the time for the major profit driven companies that sell this essential service: Telecommunications providers, to join in this shared sacrifice.”
Mayer said she was “cautiously optimistic” about bringing telecommunications companies to the table on the legislation and has already spoken to a number of them. But she won’t wait for the companies.
The bill already has more than 20 co-sponsors, and will be introduced next week in the Senate, where Democrats just secured a supermajority.
“Broadband is an essential tool, and it should be as essential as running water and electricity,” Harckham said. “For people that say, ‘the private markets will handle this,’ private markets have not handled it, because the private markets don’t care about poor kids. They care about people who pay their bills.”
The varying degrees of access to technology, otherwise known as the digital divide, has long been a major educational equity issue, said the many education leaders who spoke at the announcement.
But the pandemic has deepened that divide. Before, the largely poor, non-white children who don’t have home internet may have struggled to do their homework. Now, they struggle to participate in their education at all.
“Think about the big five districts: 1.2 million children, the majority of them being Black and Latino children,” said Yonkers Superintendent Edwin Quezada. “Let us assume that 20% of them do not have access to the internet.
“That is equal to 240,000 children….can we afford to have 240,000 children from the most needy districts in New York (without) access to technology?”
Oscar Cohen, co-chair of the Spring Valley NAACP’s education committee, gave the East Ramapo school district as an example. Cohen said that for the last nine months, more than 5,000 students had been “locked out” of their education by lack of internet and devices.
“How do 5,000 students make up nine months of lost time?” Cohen said. He called the bill a “vaccine” against the devastating effects of marginalized children missing out on school.
So far during the pandemic, families without internet have been relying on expensive cellphone data plans, public Wi-Fi where they can get it or disconnecting from school completely.
“Families should never have to pick between putting food on their table or (getting) internet for their child,” said New York PTA President Kyle Belokopitsky. “This bill begins to solve that problem.”
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