By: Chris Meyer

It’s time to get serious about closing the digital divide in Baton Rouge

It appears school will continue to include a remote instruction component in Baton Rouge for the foreseeable future. East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, the largest public school district in the city, announced that it would soon transition to two-days a week in person learning for young learners while asking middle and high school students to continue virtually. While it is welcome news that public health data is trending in a more positive direction in our fight against the global pandemic and school officials are prioritizing the physical return to school of young learners, we must act urgently and creatively to address the digital divide in our community.

In the debate over remote vs. in-person instruction, we’ve sometimes lost sight of what really matters: delivering a great education to every student in Baton Rouge, and staying focused on our goal of equity in our public education system, even during the pandemic.

Research tells us that low-income students and students of color are most at-risk of falling dangerously behind during the pandemic. A lack of access to broadband internet and internet devices are often the culprit, and the numbers are stark.

According to a state survey, nearly a third of Louisiana households don’t have access to the internet, and roughly a quarter don’t have a laptop or tablet available at home. Just 46% of low-income households have access to the internet.

There’s funding available to remedy this crisis. Louisiana has received more than $300 million in federal COVID-19 relief and CARES Act funding, with a mandate to use to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year. Thanks to state-level leadership–the legislature, Gov. Edwards, and State Education Superintendent Cade Brumley–the state is projected to spend more than $30 million to attempt to bridge the digital divide through increasing access to devices.

Deploying this funding to help struggling schools outfit every child with devices will be critical to success this year, but that may just be the first piece to the puzzle. To address short- and long-term connectivity issues, leaders may need to get a bit creative. Here are a few ideas for how city and state leaders can bring internet access to everyone who needs it:

Partner with telecom companies to increase broadband access. In Cleveland, officials are working to make broadband access for students a free, public utility. In Maryland, some districts have partnered with AT&T to set up hot-spots in public buildings like fire stations, libraries, and community centers. These larger hotspots can reach a targeted area where a majority of households lack internet access at home. In other cities and towns, municipal vehicles (including school buses) have been turned into hotspots and parked in strategic locations. In Tennessee, state government has offered telecom companies grants worth millions of dollars to identify creative solutions to connect their estimated 31,000 residents without access to the internet. We have seen examples of success as nearby as Lafayette, but we need to put these lessons to work as a state. Louisiana should get creative and bring everyone to the table to figure out a way to get the internet to as many people as possible.

Distribute curriculum materials in new ways. Solving the internet issue is the best solution, but in the meantime, school district leaders can get creative and build partnerships to distribute curriculum materials in other ways. Early in the pandemic, we saw schools like Collegiate Baton Rouge respond quickly to address the needs families were sharing in accessing the curriculum.  Several cities have partnered with public television stations to air lessons on TV or radio, and reach students who don’t have internet access. This was attempted in limited fashion towards the end of the summer with the state department of education and Louisiana Public Broadcasting. A top-ranked district or the state could expand and make permanent this partnership for the remainder of the school year.

Push for the ability to deploy federal funding. Whether the federal government allocates additional funding for broadband access in future relief packages, education leaders should get creative with existing funding streams to make internet and device access a basic necessity in public education. Proposals have been floated that would allow school construction dollars to be spent increasing internet connectivity in the immediate term. These policies would impact millions of students nationwide, and should be enacted with urgency. Here in Baton Rouge, we can make sure that our elected leaders know we stand behind these efforts.

As researchers have noted since the start of the pandemic, COVID-related learning loss is not being distributed equally. The most vulnerable students in communities like Baton Rouge are bearing the brunt of this learning loss. It’s critical that our leaders come together to push policy that will prevent our children from falling permanently behind.

Be well,
Chris

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