How school leaders can join broadband expansion efforts

Many states have broadband expansion plan focused on closing the digital divide
By: | June 24, 2020
Schools can partner with state and local broadband internet expansion initiatives with online classes, such as the session above, playing a bigger role in K-12 education, even after the coronavirus is controlled.Schools can partner with state and local broadband internet expansion initiatives with online classes, such as the session above, playing a bigger role in K-12 education, even after the coronavirus is controlled.

Superintendents proceeding with online learning programs can play a critical role in state and local efforts to extend high-speed, broadband internet to more homes in their communities.

The coronavirus closures brought widespread attention to a problem that had long been clear to many in K-12 education: a substantial number of students—some 9 million by many estimates—can’t connect to the internet when they’re not in school.

In efforts to narrow to this so-called “homework gap,” many superintendents handed out mobile WiFi hotspots, placed routers on buses and helped families connect to low-cost internet service.

At the same time, many states have internet expansion plans focused on closing the digital divide. An overarching goal to is make the “last mile” connections from high-speed broadband networks to underserved homes and neighborhoods, says Anna Read, an officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Research Initiative.

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“As COVID-19 has highlighted, there are a lot of gaps in home access,” Read says. “Throughout the pandemic, educators have played an important role in highlighting the challenge of broadband access and why these gaps matter.”

Lack of broadband service not only leaves students out of online learning but also means parents can’t work from home and prevents families from connecting with relatives online and from accessing telemedicine, Read says.

Pew Charitable Trusts recently sent a letter to Congress urging the federal government to use state programs as models to support wide broadband expansion.

North Carolina, for example, has made closing the so-called “homework gap” a linchpin of its broadband expansion plan. Illinois and Washington have focused on building networks with speeds that will meet the demands of the future, rather than just the needs of today, Read says.

State and district education leaders are participating in many of these initiatives, she adds.

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The most promising practices among the state programs include:

  • Stakeholder outreach and engagement: States have created broadband task forces and councils, as well as partnerships among state agencies.
  • Policy framework: States are setting well-defined goals and a clear policy direction in legislation and setting up separate offices to lead statewide broadband programs. This includes identifying barriers to broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas, and connecting high-speed internet expansion to other policy priorities such as economic development, transportation and health care.
  • Planning and capacity building: Half of states have plans that define goals and objectives that provide a baseline against which to measure progress.
  • Funding and operations: Some states are providing funding to support broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas through grant programs that fund a portion of the cost of deployment in these communities.
  • Program evaluation and evolution. States that are supporting planning efforts and funding infrastructure projects are evaluating the performance of these efforts and incorporating lessons learned.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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