The debate over when to reopen schools has turned, not surprisingly, into more political theater. The worst part is that it’s distracting from the most efficient and sustainable way to overcome the learning loss suffered due to COVID-19 and avoid deepening the education deficit, particularly for low-income and minority students.
To get students back to learning, we must connect them at home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both agree that for schools to reopen, students will need to be kept some distance apart from one another. This creates a challenge of keeping classrooms at half their normal capacity due to spacing out desks. In response, schools are considering a variety of hybrid and blended learning models that have students physically in a school some of the time and learning at home the rest of the time.
But that returns us to the same dilemma that emerged in the spring. Too many low-income and minority students lack the devices and connectivity required to benefit from these hybrid models of learning.
An estimated 21 million Americans lack a high-speed internet connection. More than 1 in 10 students report they don’t have a laptop or desktop at home. And the digital divide is even more prevalent in our most vulnerable communities. The Census Household Pulse Survey showed that, as of June, 15% of black students lacked reliable internet connectivity, and 21% lacked a device at home. Twenty-one percent of low-income children lack the connectivity needed to benefit from either online or hybrid learning.
That’s why it is urgent for Congress to use the next phase of fiscal relief to bridge this divide. Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey has proposed $4 billion for the E-rate program, which helps to connect low-income children at home. Republicans, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, have issued a Digital Equity Framework that calls on giving students access to broadband to complete their homework remotely as well as expanding broadband access to minority and low-income communities.
Congress should act on this bipartisan momentum and provide at least $4 billion to the Federal Communications Commission to connect low-income children who will otherwise be shut out of education next year. The funds should be targeted to those most in need and be flexible toward what technology services schools plan to utilize.
These investments will help connect children to the educational opportunities they need to succeed during the disruptions caused by COVID-19.
If our leaders ignore this and continue to let partisan politics supersede commonsense solutions the result could be devastating for these students. McKinsey estimates the instructional disruptions caused by COVID-19 led to nearly seven months of lost learning on average, with black students losing 10 months and low-income students losing as much as a year. A New Mexico government analysis also showed school children there may have lost a year’s worth of education due to closures and poor online learning.
There is one additional challenge facing schools this fall. Even when schools reopen, many parents are going to keep their children at home. According to a national survey of parents in June, only one-fifth feel safe sending their children back to school in August or September. Nonwhite parents are even more nervous, with only 19% saying they feel comfortable with the notion of sending their children back. Nearly 4 in 10 parents said that they would not send their children back to school until a vaccine is available.
Some of these parents’ concerns will be addressed through health measures incorporated into the school days. But many others, particularly in areas where the virus is surging, will still feel that it is too risky and prefer instead to keep their children at home. Schools will need to offer these children online learning options that, again, are only possible with devices and connectivity at home.
We have an opportunity to overcome these academic and economic barriers. Just as the country has responded to other enormous issues during the pandemic, now we need our elected leaders to commit themselves just as fully to closing the digital divide. We have the means to do so, and now Congress needs to show it has the will.
John Bailey worked on the first federal pandemic preparedness plan. He previously served as a domestic policy adviser at the White House and was the director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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