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The current pandemic has revealed that broadband is the modern-day necessity. But for far too many families, lack of reliable internet is a daily reality that has turned into a learning crisis in the face of COVID-19 and distance learning.
Meanwhile, the events of 2020 seem expressly designed to illustrate, in glaring detail, the racism inherent in our public policies. Existing educational inequities — experienced far more by low-income, Black, Hispanic and Latinx and Indigenous Americans — are being exacerbated by connectivity gaps across the country and here in Maine. We can solve this through a commitment from policymakers and communities to find and address areas with poor quality or expensive internet. The time has come to ensure that every household has high-quality internet access.
With school districts and higher education institutions across our state closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the families of more than 182,500 Maine K-12 and 80,000 postsecondary students did their best to adjust to online learning. However, far too many families, students and teachers were held back by a lack of the critical home technology they now need to teach and learn.
As it looks increasingly likely that schools will not be back to normal in the fall, the piecemeal solutions that our school districts used to reach more students virtually will not be enough. We need real investment to close the connectivity gap statewide.
The Department of Education estimates that 24,000 K-12 students in Maine do not have at-home connectivity. This connectivity gap disproportionately affects students in rural areas, where 60 percent of Mainers live. In Maine, more than 17,660 miles of roadways or 50 percent of the state does not have internet fast enough for school or work. The state of Maine Broadband Action Plan estimates that it will cost $1.6 billion to address the broadband needs of the state.
As districts implement online learning, students without internet access miss critical instruction time, collaboration with peers, enrichment resources and opportunities to utilize educational tools. Further, these student’s families cannot use the internet to access telehealth services. As the U.S. economy starts to recover, lack of internet access will make it more difficult for the 62,000 unemployed Mainers to find and interview for jobs.
To be clear, educators in Maine are trying. The Department of Education has launched #ConnectKidsNow!, an initiative to address the digital divide in Maine. The department is working with districts and the Maine Principals Association to determine the connectivity needs in districts.
The department is also working with leaders from Adult Education, University of Maine System and Maine Community College System to identify the broadband needs of postsecondary students. This will mean they need support providing thousands of students with laptops and hotspots. Unfortunately, it has become clear that one hotspot on a limited data plan isn’t enough for reliable internet, especially in a household of more than two people.
Maine education leaders are not in this alone. The Bangor Savings Bank Foundation is supporting the #ConnectKidsNow! Initiative with a $50,000 grant. The grant will be used for covering the cost of connectivity at home for 500 students, provide hotspot enabled devices for 500 students and purchasing 500 devices for students.
It is clear that, in 2020, having broadband internet at home is not optional — it is a requirement for learning and life. This moment has revealed that reliable internet access at home is about as important as power and running water. In a time when the call for social justice is finally reaching those in positions of power and prominently featured in the news, connectivity is another important factor that will prevent future marginalization of low-income, Black, Hispanic and Latinx and Indigenous communities.
This is why we must commit to ensuring that each and every student in Maine is connected. Closing the connectivity gap is possible if we collect data to understand the need, make good use of available resources and make investments in both wired and wireless broadband infrastructure.
We know we need to be invested in this issue for the long haul. The connectivity gap will not be closed overnight. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the challenge, it was there before. A real solution will require persistence even after the pandemic is behind us. Let’s ensure that the legacy of the COVID-19 outbreak includes connectivity for all students in Maine.
Pender Makin is Maine’s commissioner of education. Ben Gilman is president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation.