As we absorb the lessons of the pandemic – what we did right and what we did wrong – one of the most positive takeaways for me is how access to the internet kept families and communities together and enabled schools to continue functioning.
The value of this cannot be overstated. However, not everyone benefited equally from access to the internet. In many areas of the country, both in urban and rural areas, connectivity remains limited or expensive, and whether it was participating in an online class, submitting homework assignments, or conducting virtual teacher/parent conferences, many schools, teachers and parents struggled to ensure a quality educational experience for children. We should all find this unacceptable. Equitable access to the network must be a priority.
The good news is that the government has addressed this challenge head on. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides approximately $14 billion to the Office of Postsecondary Education as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). In addition, The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides for more than $36 billion in emergency grants for postsecondary education, $7 billion for an extension to E-Rate (the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries).
Some of this money can be used to improve network infrastructure and community access to the internet, but to do so, those requesting the money must clearly understand how the funds can be used, the relationship between that money and other funds available for network infrastructure development, and how the money will be used to benefit constituents, from connecting the unconnected with community Wi-Fi to the safe reopening of schools. They must also understand how to access the funds. Organizations that do this and act on it right away – the money won’t be available forever – can bring benefits to their schools and communities that will last for decades.
Greater inclusivity for education
The pandemic clearly exposed the digital divide and the lack of access to equitable educational opportunities. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you have a fast broadband and Wi-Fi connection and that your children, attending school online over the last year, also enjoyed a reliable, high-speed connection.
Not all children had this luxury. In homes that don't have access to broadband or where it is too expensive, children struggled to attend online courses and access basic school resources such as homework assignments. Young students are often found outside cafes trying to take advantage of the public Wi-Fi connection to submit their homework.
This is why one of the best ways government funding can support more equitable education is by supporting network access via libraries, community centers, and school bus Wi-Fi. If equitable access to the internet is fully implemented, then a digital curriculum based on the democratized information available to everyone on the internet becomes by far the most effective way to reach the most students. Everyone gets equal access to the information on the internet if they have equal access to the internet.
Guaranteed high-quality access means that as educators learn from their experiences during the pandemic how to effectively incorporate more digital learning into the curriculum, they can better support remote participation for sick or physically challenged students. It will also enable teachers to create completely new educational strategies based on network access, allow students to collaborate on projects outside of school hours, and make it easier for parents to schedule conferences with teachers, so they don’t have to take time off work.
This momentum can continue to drive additional benefits. For example, more coverage, bandwidth, and devices will allow for new use cases, such as more sophisticated cameras and applications for perimeter security and anti-bullying monitoring, as well as greater mobility for administrators, teachers, and students across schools or entire districts. It will also drive increasing sophistication of student, teacher, administrator, and parent portals, along with the improved application of appropriate content filtering and restrictions. Once these services are in place, we can provide a positive educational experience no matter where students are or where they access the internet from.
We are at an inflection point. We know there will be more crises and disruptions ahead. But if we act now to ensure equitable access to connectivity, we can prepare our educational systems to respond more effectively to minimize the impact.
So how can your school or district access this money? It is relatively easy but by no means simple, and trying to go it alone can end in frustration. The key is to match your organization’s need with the right funding source and take the right steps to secure it. For many schools and districts, this will require consulting an expert who understands what is possible knows the laws and regulations inside and out, and has experience navigating all the challenges related to filling in the gaps in funding from more traditional sources.
The time to transform your community’s educational system is now.
Houman Modarres is VP Marketing & Market Development at CommScope.