Students, educators need Congress to act on rural broadband
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Students, educators need Congress to act on rural broadband

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Access to broadband internet was critical to success in the 21st Century classroom before the COVID-19 pandemic that made remote learning a necessity and access to digital tools vital for students and educators.

As we close the door on this school year of unprecedented challenges, we need our leaders in Washington to prioritize solutions to tackle the digital divide rapidly, to ensure students and educators are better connected when the next school year begins in the fall.

Nearly 600,000 Wisconsin residents lack access to a broadband connection at home, according to data from BroadbandNow. The same analysis finds at least one-third of the residents do not have access to broadband internet in 24 Wisconsin counties. In seven counties, fewer than half of residents have access to a true broadband connection.

For those living in these unserved and underserved communities, that are particularly concentrated in rural areas, the abrupt transition to remote learning this spring was made far more challenging as a result of limited broadband connectivity.

To complete or submit assignments, too many Wisconsin students were forced to work from the parking lots of fast-food restaurants or other connected facilities. Too many of our educators were limited in their options to innovate and capitalize on digital resources to deliver children in rural areas the best education possible, while schools remain closed.

Challenges associated with the digital divide and education were present before COVID-19 — according to pre-COVID data from the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of eighth-grade students in the U.S. rely on the internet at their homes to do homework every day — but the pandemic has underscored the urgency with which the broadband gap must be tackled.

Wisconsin Rural School Alliance (WiRSA) believes our students and educators in rural communities deserve the same access to resources and experiences as those in better connected areas.

To deliver on this vision will require policymakers to act to fully bridge the broadband gap.

To be sure, several commendable efforts are already underway. For instance, WiRSA was encouraged to see the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote unanimously in February to adopt a plan to clear regulatory barriers to innovative solutions to increase the pace and cost-effectiveness of broadband deployments. WiRSA subsequently joined Connect Americans Now and 34 other organizations on comments filed in support of that important step.

But to completely tackle the digital divide, and ensure all our students and educators have access to the digital tools required for success, will require new action and dedicated resources from Congress.

There is broad bipartisan support for measures to expand broadband connectivity in Washington. Lawmakers must capitalize on the consensus that action is needed to pass technology-neutral broadband funding that can be deployed rapidly and in the most cost-effective manner possible in rural unserved and underserved communities.

Speed is a critical component for our students and educators who will face new and old challenges to keeping pace in the coming school year. That is why resources allocated by Congress for broadband deployments must be maximized by going to projects that will deliver the greatest reach in the fastest manner possible — rather than going to one technology or type of provider over another.

These resources should also go toward addressing a known challenge, like the homework gap, to deliver connectivity where it is needed most urgently.

While school is out for the summer, Washington must take action now to roll-back, and ultimately eliminate, the digital divide for our students and educators.

Whether schools are able to open in the fall or remote learning continues, access to broadband internet will be critical to providing the best education possible for Wisconsin students going forward.

Kim Kaukl is the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance (WiRSA).

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