Before the pandemic hit, we knew that spotty Internet access for rural and economically needy families was an impediment to equity in education in Nebraska and around the country. States, the federal government and school districts were working with varying degrees of urgency to address it.
A Nebraska Lee Enterprises newspapers report led by The World-Herald showed both the extent and nuances of the problem that became obvious when schools closed in March. It was, our reporters determined, “a statewide technology stress test.” Students tried to do assignments on smartphones or had to share a household’s only computer with parents also working from home. Bandwidth made video connections spotty. Families added costs to already stressed budgets trying to improve service.
The reporting also turned up a range of potential solutions playing out around the state. It’s critical that these be pursued with urgency. While the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 or school closings because of pockets of cases loom for the fall, reliable Internet access for homework and research is important under the best of circumstances in the 21st century.
» In Omaha, the school district this fall is buying 54,000 iPads with data plans to ensure equal access.
» In Grand Island, the district joined a federal pilot project to use old broadcast TV channels to send wireless Internet signals into homes. School officials teamed with Microsoft on the project to erect a transmission tower on an elementary school and transmit the school’s Internet signal to needy families, who will pick up the signal on antennas at their homes.
» The Nebraska Broadband Grant Program will provide about $40 million from the state’s $1.25 billion coronavirus relief fund for Internet projects in unserved and underserved areas of the state. Broadband providers, with the support of local officials, can apply for the grants from June 22-July 2. Projects must be done by Dec. 31 — which is the kind of urgency we need.
» Nebraska Native American tribes, whose lands are among the most Internet-deprived in the state, are working to launch educational networks with wireless bandwidth made available to tribes by the Federal Communications Commission last winter. Work is underway through a partnership among tribes, colleges and school districts to bring reliable, inexpensive Internet to students on the Omaha, Winnebago and Santee Reservations.
These efforts matter a great deal, and will continue to matter after the coronavirus no longer poses an urgent threat. If we address Internet access for students — and rural economies — some small good will have come from this crisis.
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