SeDoMoCha School Technology Director Matthew Larrabee receives a delivery of Wi-Fi-enabled Samsung Tab A's from Maine DOE Coordinator of Secondary Education and Integrated Instruction Beth Lambert on April 8. The devices will help connect students lacking Internet access for remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Education

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear that access to the internet is an absolute necessity for Maine’s students. In order to limit the spread of the virus, Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Department of Education announced earlier this month that schools should plan to continue distance learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. While this was an important step for public health, it puts students without internet access at risk of falling severely behind on their education.

Without a doubt, teachers in Maine have made every effort to transition to remote learning and to provide our students the same lessons they would receive in the classroom. But in some places and for some families, this has been a particularly challenging adjustment.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Thousands of students in Maine are currently unable to attend their online classes, unable to complete their assignments and unable to engage in group-learning activities. In our state’s transition to distance learning, many students without internet access are being left behind.

In Lincoln County, RSU 12 conducted a survey asking students’ parents for their feedback on the effectiveness of distance learning. Of the 425 parents who responded, about 12 percent reported having inadequate access to the internet or no access to the internet at home. While transitioning to distance learning, RSU 73, which serves the communities of Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls, made an announcement on the distribution of learning materials, stating that students without internet access would receive paper packets. Overall, the Maine Department of Education estimates that 20 percent of Maine families do not have a broadband internet connection.

In response to school closures due to COVID-19, Maine’s teachers and school administrators have been working hard to provide students with internet access and laptops or tablets if needed. NetworkMaine, a unit of the University of Maine System, created the Study-from-Car Initiative and has offered assistance to over a hundred schools in Maine to have their WiFi networks extended so that parents and students can access the internet from school parking lots.

The Study-from-Car Initiative is an example of the creative ways Mainers are helping each other through these unprecedented times. Unfortunately, taking children to the school parking lot for hours each day is not feasible for many parents, and it is far from an ideal learning environment. This is especially difficult for those working essential service jobs or for those who do not own a car.

An alternative approach, which some school districts have been able to do, is to distribute WiFi hotspots to students without internet access. On the federal level, Sen. Angus King, co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, has been advocating for funding that will provide school districts with the ability to distribute WiFi hotspots to students who need them. On both the federal and state level, adequate funding for WiFi hotspots needs to be a focus of our COVID-19 response.

Maine’s lawmakers, business owners, connectivity advocates and educators have long been sounding the alarm about the economic and educational impact of inadequate broadband coverage. Since many parts of Maine are sparsely populated, it hasn’t always been profitable

for internet service providers to expand access to certain rural areas. While WiFi hotspots can serve as a temporary solution for our students during this crisis, our federal, state and local governments need to make deeper, long-term investments in broadband expansion.

In the past year, important steps have been taken to improve connectivity in Maine. In January, the USDA announced with Gov. Mills that the federal government will be investing $10 million in broadband investment in certain communities in Maine. This year, we were proud to vote for a bill, sponsored by Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, to reduce the regulatory burden placed on community groups seeking broadband planning grants. Additionally, on July 14, Maine people will get the opportunity to vote on a bond that will provide $15 million in broadband expansion funding.

In the meantime, Maine’s students need us to act fast to provide them with the connectivity they require. The ramifications of students without internet losing their access to education are serious, and we cannot allow our rural students and students from low-income households to fall behind.

Rep. Tina Riley, D-Jay, is a member of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, is a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Watch: What does returning to normal look like?

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