It’s no secret that access to education hasn’t been historically equitable in the United States. Suburban school districts with a larger tax base have more resources, and send more kids to college. Meanwhile poorer urban and rural districts, with smaller tax bases, often struggle to meet basic educational needs. This is something that districts have always struggled with, and that state officials and local school districts have sought to overcome. Those attempts to overcome have been a mixed bag, though.
With the pandemic, and a switch to online schooling, these inequities have been brought into even more stark relief. While our local school district has done a fantastic job of providing quality educational opportunities for all students, there is only so much they can do. They can and do provide free breakfasts and lunches so students can have full bellies and be prepared to learn. And the school resource centers do their best to meet other needs outside of school to make sure students can come to school without being distracted by worries from home. But now that students are meeting outside of school the district is even more limited in what it can do to meet those needs.
It doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. School buses deliver meals to students at home so they can eat even though they aren’t coming into the school building. The district has provided notebook computers to students who need them so they can participate in online classes if they have home internet. If they do not have home internet they’ve set up wi-fi hotspots at each school, so parents can bring their children to download the week’s lessons. It isn’t ideal, but it’s better than not going to school at all.
But even with the provided computers and wi-fi hot spots, students from poor homes are missing out. If they don’t have reliable home internet, they don’t get the same interaction as students who can join classes in real-time. There is also an extra burden placed on them to make the time, and spend the fuel money, to download lessons.
It’s not the school district’s fault, and they are doing everything in their power to make sure they reach every child. They’ve even discussed options like picking up notebooks when they deliver meals, and taking them back to rural students already loaded with the week’s lessons as one solution. But this need highlights a burden that hits poor families harder than more affluent or middle class families.
It’s also one that impacts rural families more, regardless of their economic status. Not only do they have further to go to reach schools to download content, even if they could afford internet access it isn’t always available where they live.
The internet issue highlights another area where the poor are being impacted, and that is with quality educational programming. PBS, funded through the support of viewers, corporate and charitable underwriters, and some government funding, has long been a window on the world for poor and rural families. But in recent years PBS has lost some of their most beloved programming to for pay services. Sesame Street, for example, a beloved institution which has served as an introduction to the alphabet, shapes, colors, and numbers for generations of children, is no longer available to all on PBS. The show broadcasts on HBO now, with some older episodes eventually getting moved to PBS.
Not only are Big Bird and Elmo behind the premium channel paywall now, but much of the content that is available through PBS is only available through – you guessed it – the network’s online streaming platforms. If you can’t afford HBO, can’t get decent internet service, and have a hard time picking up the PBS signal where you live, there is no Sesame Street at all for you. Not even the very limited content that is available through PBS streaming services.
There is no easy answer to how to address this problem, but one of the areas that absolutely needs to be a focus is on improving rural internet access. Students need good internet access to stay caught up with their peers in online schoolwork. They need good internet access to watch the streaming PBS programs available to them – limited though they are. They need good internet access to research and apply for college programs and scholarships.
It isn’t just a matter of playing online games with friends and browsing social media. The internet is a necessary part of 21st century life. It’s the window on the world that television used to be. And any plan to improve education opportunities for poor and rural youth needs to include plans for access to quality internet infrastructure.
It isn’t something we can afford to ignore anymore. Our kids needs good internet today.