Despite COVID-19, Maine students must get a good education, and their schools need to be safe for them, their teachers and their communities. Maine is grappling with how to safely reopen schools this fall, and teachers are worried about potential adverse health consequences for everyone involved. The unpredictability of this pandemic means that some distance education will likely be with us for a long time. If so, we’ll need to do better than schools across the country did last spring.

The national data show that students lost months of academic progress when learning shifted online, with minority and low-income students suffering the most. Despite the heroic efforts of teachers, parents and administrators to adapt to the sudden transition, nearly half of students in some schools didn’t participate in distance education last spring, for a host of reasons. For some, a lack of home computers, inadequate digital literacy or the burden of caring for younger siblings got in the way. For others, curricula developed for classroom teaching just did not prove engaging or interesting when applied online.

About 15 percent of the nation’s students live in homes that haven’t yet adopted broadband. And that is another big obstacle.

To address it, Democrats in Congress have proposed a temporary $50-a-month subsidy to help unemployed and low-income families get home broadband service during the pandemic. The total cost is about $8 billion – real money, but only a tiny fraction of the trillions being spent on coronavirus response and economic stimulus. This Emergency Broadband Benefit is a plan to cope with a digital divide that has existed for years, but whose impacts are being felt much more strongly during this pandemic.

Now Republicans should respond with a similar or better proposal as part of their own relief package. But the digital divide in America is not a problem the government can solve alone.

When schools closed in March, many broadband providers took unprecedented steps to keep vulnerable families connected, including free access to Wi-Fi networks and free home broadband service for low-income families and students. These initiatives built upon existing private-sector programs to connect low-income homes through a host of adoption initiatives like heavily discounted broadband service, computers and digital literacy training.

These initiatives have made a real impact, connecting nearly 9 million people over the past decade. But with the fall’s distance learning crisis bearing down on us, Congress now needs to create a public safety net to supplement those private-sector efforts.

The nation can’t accept another failed semester of online learning. Students are our most important national investment – bar none. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to take the blame for failing the nation on distance education. In Maine and the country, bipartisan support is essential.

In rural areas, where the problem is the lack of broadband infrastructure rather than just low adoption, an Emergency Broadband Benefit could help bring wireless hotspots or fixed wireless service to help get families online.

Two of my former colleagues, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., have teamed up with a bipartisan group of senators on a plan to speed up deployment of $20 billion in new rural broadband funding from the Federal Communications Commission. Their efforts would also reform outdated eligibility rules in order to bring more competition and innovation to federally funded rural broadband projects.

This is the kind of pragmatic approach the country needs. The two parties should work together with smart policies to bridge the digital divide, reform outdated and anticompetitive rules and ensure greater accountability than we have seen in the past.

To be sure, universal broadband is not a cure-all for a challenge as complex as distance learning. State and local education leaders will also need to improve digital literacy training, support and train teachers who feel like they are drowning under the transition and adapt lesson plans to better engage students’ imaginations in this very different teaching and learning environment.

Support in Congress for an Emergency Broadband Benefit is an important way to help Maine’s students, parents and teachers.

Comments are not available on this story.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.