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Reimagining Education Means Closing the Digital Divide

Elisa Villanueva Beard

CEO, Teach For America

The American education system is dealing with one of the greatest disruptions it has ever faced. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced students, their families, teachers, and schools into a new group project. The task? To successfully implement virtual schooling for the first time in history. 

To learn online, students need access to a set of tools: stable internet, computers, basic tech literacy, and more. A student without the internet or proper devices can’t log in to an online learning program, complete homework, or video chat with classmates and teachers. 

Millions of students across our country do not have access to these necessary technologies and many are falling through the cracks. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data says 21 million U.S. families — an estimated 12 million students — do not have a broadband connection in their homes. Low-income communities are disproportionately affected by this lack of access; almost half of U.S. students living below the poverty threshold do not have reliable internet access at home. 

This digital divide disconnects our most vulnerable kids from the learning opportunities they need to help them thrive.  

This is a moment where we can build something different for kids. It’s not just an opportunity, it’s an obligation to rethink education and reimagine what’s next. There are three actions we can take now: 

1. Increasing internet access

For virtual learning to happen, students need the internet at home. Lack of access is a national problem that is particularly acute in rural communities, but congress has a chance to act. The Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020 (H.R. 6563), introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., is a starting point. 

This bill would appropriate $2 billion for an Emergency Connectivity Fund, administered through the FCC’s E-Rate program, for schools and libraries to purchase wi-fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices.

2. Giving students the tools they need

Access alone won’t be enough. Internet access only matters if students have the needed technology and hardware to learn online. The state of California has provided a blueprint. Gov. Gavin Newsom has worked with private entities like T-Mobile and Apple to donate 70,000 laptops and tablets to students. The state has also partnered with Google to provide 100,000 free points of wi-fi targeted to rural areas throughout California. 

Community responses are vital as well. Recently, the city of Baltimore rallied to redirect $9 million from the Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund to immediate food, digital access, and technology needs for local students. A broad coalition of parents, teachers, and elected officials —  spearheaded in part by Baltimore City Councilmember Zeke Cohen, a Teach For America alumnus joined forces to move swiftly.

Other states and cities should follow this path — investing resources and partnering with private organizations and community groups in innovative ways to buy and distribute computers, tablets, and other equipment — and train students and teachers to use this tech. These investments should be disproportionately directed to communities with the greatest needs

3. Advocating for great teaching

Finally, we must support teachers and continue to advocate for great teaching. It’s the most essential ingredient in a child’s education. The connections forged between teachers and students are more powerful than any wi-fi network. I’ve been so inspired to see teachers leading with relationships of trust, care, and love to catalyze individual student learning, even during this pandemic. As schools move into the fall, building these connections is more important than ever. 

Ultimately, students will have to make up for months of lost learning time. They will need summer school and more hours to learn in the school day. We must provide increased academic and social-emotional supports for students and teachers. There is so much that needs to be done — addressing remote learning now can help narrow those gaps and ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind. 

I have reason to be hopeful as we face this challenge. The Teach For America community of 62,000 alumni and corps members is showing up in new ways for students and families. They are adapting their classes to new virtual environments, learning innovative methods of teaching, and engaging closely with their students, families, and communities. They stand alongside so many others across our country who are envisioning an education system that ensures all children can learn, lead, and thrive.

Now is the moment to create a more just, more equitable, and fairer society that provides opportunity for all kids. We have a responsibility to get our students through this hard moment, learn from it, and reimagine the next.

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