By Caprice Young, Learn4Life National Superintendent:
In the 1920s, radio was an essential communications device — and it was free. In the 1950s, television became an important means of communication — and it was free. Here we are now in 2020 and there’s a big question: Why isn’t internet free when we need it to educate our children? It’s time for the Federal Communications Commission to step in. Broadband should always be free to students.
Students who don’t have broadband access are severely disadvantaged. The next 18 months will likely require sporadic sheltering in place and remote learning solutions. Schools, parents and communities are struggling to pay for a few months of internet access, but we need to recognize that learning must take place at school and online at home … forever.
That means every student should have access to broadband anywhere, anytime — to level the playing field and help close the achievement gap. Academic success means the ability of students to do homework and to explore the world online.
When schools closed, for example, Learn4Life quickly distributed thousands of laptops to our students. These days, laptops are under $200 — less than the cost of textbooks for one semester of high school. So, the return on investment is easy to justify, but the big issue is the lack of internet access.
In the schools I lead, 85 percent of our 23,000 at-risk students don’t have internet access at home. This is more than a significant competitive disadvantage. Their families don’t have access to the basic lifesaving information we access through the internet on a regular basis, such as public data about COVID-19 and where to get tested, solutions for how to create your own masks, and community resources for food, medical care and shelter. Basic civic and economic information anyone needs to function in the modern world isn’t part of their world. They don’t have access to news, candidate information, free job training or online employment applications. Families without internet access are shut out.
Most families do have access to a smartphone of some sort, and it is a vital lifeline. Low-income parents will often pay for their phones before they pay for rent, or sometimes even food. This makes sense because cell phones connect them to jobs, church and family. I even witnessed a teen selling his sneakers to get cash to add minutes and data to his cell phone. Being connected isn’t a luxury. It is a necessity.
Some of our students were writing their papers on smartphones before we put laptops into their hands. They made do, but cell phones don’t always have the unlimited data needed for online education. Video chats with teachers, group collaboration, YouTube and Vimeo downloads, document sharing, e-books and online research all require significant broadband access. Full-time school online requires much more than two gigabytes of data downloads per month.
Learn4Life is struggling to find the 19,000 hotspots we need—and the telecom companies are charging us for devices that used to be free. Prior to COVID-19, my telecommunication providers would give me a hotspot to access WiFi if I signed up for a year-long $10 per month WiFi contract. Now, WiFi hotspots are hard to find. The advertised two months of free WiFi requires a year-long contract at $35 per month, making WiFi more expensive than laptops. Getting broadband consumes resources needed for teachers, counseling, academic intervention and eventually, school cleanliness and nurses.
When we return after stay at home orders end, we likely will have a year of sporadic remote learning requirements when outbreaks must be addressed. But the plain truth is that our modern lives require ubiquitous WiFi, like clean air and water, shelter and basic nutrition, and students should not be penalized based on their parents’ ability to pay. It is time that we recognize that students of all economic backgrounds need to be connected.
FCC requirements to support public access to telecommunications has long been part of national policy. Radio and television were supported by advertising, but public access to cable broadcasting was an active part of the last century. Just in the last decade, eRate became a vital program that enabled every school in the country to get connected to the internet. Policymakers knew that the proper functioning of our schools demanded this basic infrastructure. The COVID-19 crisis has done a simple favor in forcing us to recognize that student learning outside of the classroom is just as important as inside. Eliminating this necessary barrier to 21st century learning is a practical and simple way to help reduce inequity in our education system and build success in all students.
Broadband should be free for students always.