When I stood with students, parents, and educators recently to discuss the challenges of emergency remote education during this global pandemic, I found myself wondering, how have we left so many children behind.
To be clear, the efforts of our teachers during this crisis have been nothing less than heroic. Our teachers have been on the front lines of remote education and reopening schools, and we must work harder to support and hear them.
As I listened to each speaker share their own unique experience with online learning these last few months, there was one common conclusion: our state’s incomplete broadband system has left Vermonters behind — further perpetuating existing inequities in education.
Ken Cadow, director of Career Pathways and Workforce Development at Randolph Union High School, highlighted the inequities when he said, “This is what came to mind for me when we knew we were shifting to remote learning; this assumption that everyone is connected. When people can’t access the internet, isolation can feel much darker. We treat the internet as a means to a right; the right to an education, the right to share your voice, the right to be informed on a vote, the right to be counted in a census. When it is the only means, it should be treated as a right in and of itself. It shouldn’t be so hard.”
In 2020, access to quality, affordable internet should be a right, not a luxury. It should be no different than access to water, heat, or electricity. Particularly amidst this crisis, broadband access is not only essential for online learning but also remote work, access to basic health and safety information, economic opportunity, and connection with our community. Yet, roughly 23% of Vermont, approximately 70,000 homes and businesses, don’t have access to high-speed internet services. It’s time to think of the internet as the modern-day equivalent of electricity. We would be outraged if 70,000 homes and businesses didn’t have electricity in 2020. It’s time to come together, work together and to recognize that when every Vermonter has access to affordable, quality internet, we all rise.
We must act now. Already, our school districts are making decisions about how and whether schools will reopen. We need to ensure that remote or online learning is accessible and affordable for every student during the 2020-2021 school year.
Here are a few things we can do right now:
First, establish an emergency broadband task force to conduct a rapid needs assessment for our students and teachers.
Second, together with our communications union districts, superintendents, telecommunication providers, and hardware companies set a date and commit to delivering universal broadband to our students, our teachers, and our state.
Third, working with Vermont’s Congressional delegation secure and deploy the resources necessary to urgently close the broadband gap.
These are uncertain times, but Vermonters are strong and resilient. We know that with adversity also comes great opportunity for growth. We know that we can meet this moment if we do it together. There is no time to waste.
Molly Gray, Democratic candidate for Lt. Gov.