For years, we have talked and talked about the digital divide. This spring’s stay-at-home order might inspire us to finally fix the problem.
This is a clarifying moment. The closure of schools, workplaces, public libraries and private businesses has pushed the technology gap into stark relief.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in public education, where schools’ quick pivot to distance learning has been stymied by many students’ lack of home internet connection. What once was bemoaned as a homework gap has been suddenly exposed as an intolerable inequity: A loaner school laptop isn’t much help if you can’t access online instruction, as districts across the state have quickly learned.
Take the Toppenish School District in Yakima County. When the district surveyed its approximately 4,500 students in early March, only 70% had home internet service or access to a hot spot, Superintendent John Cerna told me this week. Cost was a major barrier, he said — more than nine out of 10 of the district’s students qualify for free lunch.
Toppenish isn’t alone. More than two-thirds of the districts responding to a recent state survey reported that some — often many — of their students’ families couldn’t afford home broadband service. Toppenish and dozens of school districts have rushed to fill the gap by extending Wi-Fi to school parking lots and roving school buses, buying home Wi-Fi hot spots for students and helping them connect with affordable plans.
One of the first calls received by the Seattle Public Schools’ new Family Tech Support Center was from a family living in a shelter, Nicholas Merriam, chief engagement officer for the tech worker engagement group sea.citi told me. Their only internet access was in the shelter’s kitchen, which they were limited to visiting for only an hour a day. The volunteers came up with a cheap, basic solution — buying a Wi-Fi extender to amplify the signal.
Last week, the Washington State Broadband Office announced the launch of more than 100 new public Wi-Fi hot spots all over Washington. “COVID has redefined what should be considered critical infrastructure,” Director Russ Elliott said.
But as inspirational as these efforts are, they are only a temporary fix. Long term, we can’t expect thousands of students to complete school assignments — or adults to work, or Zoom with doctors, or perform other routine online tasks — in parking lots. Enduring solutions will take resources and continued resolve.
“To this day, there are places in the state where you can’t get a cellular (phone) connection, let alone broadband,” said Dennis Small, Educational Technology Director for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. When I pointed out that Federal Communications Commission data shows Washington state is blanketed by broadband service, he literally laughed out loud.
The FCC data is based on reports from broadband providers, not on consumer reality, Small explained. Elliott’s office has been enlisting residents to help create a more accurate map of coverage by completing an internet speed test and survey available at broadband.wa.gov.
And now, thanks to COVID-19, state education officials are generating a new trove of data that shows just how many are falling through the cracks.
Sixty-eight percent of districts responding to that recent survey reported at least some of their students live in geographical areas without broadband or smartphone data access.
Here, too, there are promising signs. On the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic Educational Service District Superintendent Greg Lynch is leading discussions between school superintendents and public utility districts to brainstorm short- and long-term solutions that involve identifying and prioritizing infrastructure projects. For example, the Kitsap PUD is expected to discuss whether to accelerate its residential broadband program later this month.
As Lynch told me, “This should be part of basic education as we get into the third decade of the 21st century.”
Momentum is definitely building. The trick will be to sustain it once the current crisis has passed.