On the day that civil rights icon Mr. John R. Lewis was laid to rest, Guilford County Schools (GCS) Superintendent Sharon Contreras urged Congress to get into “good trouble” working to bridge the digital divide on behalf of America’s most vulnerable children and families.
Contreras made her comments during a remote news conference Thursday held to discuss the digital divide, which looms large as millions of school children prepare to learn from home next school year.
The nation’s system of education was not prepared for schools to be closed for an extended period, Contreras said.
And school closure has impacted low-income students and students of color more acutely than their white counterparts from wealthier households, she said.
“We shut down at a time when achievement disparities persist across income levels and between white students and their Black and Latino peers,” Contreras said. “Clearly this shut down is exacerbating learning loss for these students.”
Contreras said about 17% of GCS families don’t have access to high speed internet connections. And about 26% of the district’s Latino families and 20 percent of Black families do not have enough electronic devices for the children in their homes.
Students in poverty are less likely to live in households without high speed internet, she said.
“Our free-and-reduced lunch count before the pandemic, before these huge increases in unemployment, was 67%, and we have approximately 3,000 homeless students, many of them living in shelters, motels and hotels,” Contreras said.
Former Gov. Bev Perdue, now managing director of Perdue Strategy, a management consulting firm and founder of digiLEARN, a nonprofit focused on accelerating digital learning and State Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican who co-chairs the Senate Education and Education Appropriations committees, joined Contreras.
A recent report from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group titled “Closing the K–12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning,” found that 30% of North Carolina’s students in grades K-12 don’t have adequate access to the internet.
Perdue, who served as governor from 2009-13, said the nation must find a way to pay for a “massive infusion” of technology infrastructure in cities, small towns, schools and hospitals.
A stimulus package Congress is considering includes about $4 billion for technology infrastructure, she said.
Perdue encouraged citizens to contact Republican senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and urge them to support this “kind of investment.”
North Carolina is in better position than some states to switch to remote learning because of decisions earlier this century to provide rural communities with high speed internet connections, Perdue said.
“Some of us decided that broadband connectivity in a state that has 80 of 100 counties rural was essential, not just to kids but to businesses and to health care,” Perdue said. “So, we worked with partners in the federal government in 2009 during the recession and laid down really strong fiber optic connectivity in all 100 counties, so when teachers all of a sudden had to become mobile teachers and parents had to become mobile teacher’s assistants, the world was fairly ready for that piece in the education system.”
Still, the pandemic has exposed systemic inequities, Perdue said.
“As we’ve seen the data after school let out, the digital divide, that terrible known fact of the haves and have nots in North Carolina, became much larger than any of us had thought,” Perdue said.
Ballard noted that lawmakers have authorized the use of more than $60 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid for K-12 schools to use to help students and families connect to schools for remote learning.
“Disruptions to the education system and our 9 to 5 work week has really magnified and amplified the need and the priority this needs to be moving forward,” Ballard said.
Meanwhile, Contreras urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its influence to encourage telecommunications companies to adopt policies favorable to low-income children and families and to tap reserves to provide school districts and libraries with money to purchase hot spots to enable students without internet service to connect to classrooms and other educational opportunities.
School districts and local governments can’t do it alone, she said.
“I asked that the North Carolina General Assembly please try to negotiate with telecom companies so that we can provide more technology and internet connectivity to families,” Contreras said. “Our educational system cannot simply be dependent on the funding decisions of local bodies like boards of county commissions or city councils.”