The first day of school has always come with a mix of joy and anxiety as students transition from summer fun to books and bells. But the start to this new school year certainly did not look like the last—even for those headed back into the classroom.
By the end of the 2019-20 school year, about 55 million American students and teachers had been affected by COVID-19 related school closures. Many continue to be affected, with schools embracing a blend of staggered schedules and remote learning.
Others may be starting in-person, but these schools need to plan for the contingency of remote learning for students that may be forced to stay at home due to the onset of illness or in the event of a virus resurgence throughout a community. As school districts prepare for remote learning, a significant barrier remains in that too many students do not have reliable internet connectivity at home.
In many cases, however, the problem is not the availability of service; rather, customers may not be buying service that is available because they cannot afford it or for other reasons. In all cases, the ability of rural school systems and families to bridge digital gaps for this future generation is hindered.
To help make sure every student who has a connection at home can make good use of it this year, NTCA has joined the K-12 Bridge to Broadband program, an initiative from the national non-profit Digital Bridge K-12, to bring together rural broadband providers and school districts across the country.
This model has already proven successful in North Dakota where rural providers leveraged this initiative to connect with schools who had students in need, and we are hopeful it can become a roadmap for school and provider interaction across the country.
We believe this initiative could be particularly important in ensuring that the robust networks our members have worked so hard to deploy can be part of the solution for remote learning, rather than school districts and students resorting to temporary or less capable platforms or other alternatives.
By committing to a set of principles, NTCA member broadband providers who join the partnership program can express their interest in working with local school systems, who will take on bulk procurement of home internet access for those students living in homes that do not already purchase such services. NTCA is promoting the partnership program to our members, and Digital Bridge K-12 is sharing contact information for providers through a lookup tool on its website for school systems.
Like so many things, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to ensuring every student is connected. But we believe solutions start by having schools and broadband providers simply talk with each other at a local level. As “hometown providers” who live and raise families in the areas they serve, our members have a unique opportunity to lead rural communities in solving this issue by offering solutions to schools in their own backyards.
Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which represents nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies across rural America. With more than 30 years of experience representing the country’s smallest independent telecom operators, she seeks to sustain the vitality of rural and remote communities and the benefits broadband networks bring to the national economy. She is also a board member of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and GlobalWin, an organization of women leaders in the high-tech industry. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
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