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IDEA Public Schools plans to lobby Congress to make elimination of the digital divide a key part of the next stimulus bill.

The nonprofit charter school operator has also started to send MiFi devices and laptops to students who are struggling to access the internet during the coronavirus crisis.

All IDEA schools have been closed to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Catharine Bellinger, vice president of public affairs and advocacy for IDEA, said the goal is for all IDEA students in grades 1st -12th to have access to a laptop computer connected to the internet in their home.  To make sure this is achieved IDEA has started a major fundraising campaign.

“Our operations team conducted an extensive survey of the families of IDEA students, garnering more than 21,000 responses. Through this outreach, we learned that an estimated 7,700 families donothave internet access separate from a smartphone and that most students did not have access to a laptop computer to complete assignments and connect with their teacher,” Bellinger said.

Catharine Bellinger

“After redistributing 17,000 laptops from IDEA schools, there are still nearly 26,000 students without a computer. All donations raised through our new fund will support purchases of hardware and internet access for IDEA students and teachers.”

There are two parts to IDEA’s strategy, Bellinger told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“The first part is buying devices, MiFi hotspots, so that families whose neighborhoods are not wired for broadband can actually get on the internet using cell towers. We know that cell service is spotty in the Rio Grande Valley but for maybe half of our families who lack internet at home, the MiFI hotspot can improve their connectivity.”

Bellinger said this is part one for helping families without internet gain access. 

“The other part of that is distributing the laptops. That is less of a problem. If we raise the money and buy the laptops, we can pass them out. So the internet is the bigger challenge.”

The other key component of IDEA’s mission of expanding connectivity, Bellinger noted, is advocating to the federal government to include funds to close the digital divide in rural communities and parts of the country like the Valley where broadband access is severely lacking.

“We think that the next stimulus bill, phase four, is a real opportunity for Congress to increase funds through the Federal Communications Commission for programs that actually incentivize internet service providers to come in and lay the cables,” Bellinger said.

“We are running an advocacy campaign that our parents are helping lead and we are starting out with a petition. We are going to be meeting with members of Congress, sharing the stories of parents who, even with the MiFi hotspot and the laptops, still may not be able to get on the internet.”

Bellinger acknowledged that the MiFi devices will not be a solution for everyone, particularly in the Valley.

“The good thing about them is they are mobile so you can find the best part of your house or drive somewhere so you can get good access, even just for an hour,” Bellinger said.

“Obviously, right now, as students are practicing social distancing, they cannot go to coffee shops or libraries. We think that for many of our families, they can get some cell services, like 3G, and the MiFi hotspots will work on 3G, it will just be a slower connection.”

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas show that the three metropolitan statistical areas of South Texas – Laredo, McAllen, and Brownsville – are among the least “wired” regions in the nation.

Bellinger said there is no question the federal government is going to have to step in and help reduce, if not eliminate, the digital divide in such regions.

“In those parts of the Valley, such as the region’s colonias, where there is no cell service and no cell towers, really the only solution is federal advocacy, Bellinger said.

“We have been in touch with advocacy groups like Everyone On and Future Ready, both of whom advocate the FCC to expand broadband access. This can be done through funding for the FCC and funding through the Farm Bureau. We do know this is not just a philanthropic effort.”

Bellinger added that IDEA has joined with numerous other school districts in supporting the work of the District Charter Alliance. This group has made elimination of the digital divide its top priority. 

Editor’s Note: Click here to sign IDEA Public Schools’ Digital Divide petition.

Editor’s Note: Click here to visit the Future Ready website.

Editor’s Note: Here is the letter that more than 7,000 educators from across the nation, including those with IDEA Public Schools, have signed in support of eliminating the digital divide:

March 24, 2020

Chairman Ajit Pai

Federal Communications Commission 445 12th Street, SW

Washington, DC 20054

Dear Chairman Pai:

The undersigned 7,664 education leaders and others from across the country urge you to make E-rate funds available for us to equip students with home internet access so they can continue learning as classes move online while schools are closed nationwide due to coronavirus.

We have long known that the Homework Gap unfairly hinders the ability of students living in rural areas, students of color, and students from low-income families to fully benefit from many of the educational opportunities made available by modern technology. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 14 percent of children had no internet access at home in 2017, with major equity gaps—12 percent of White students had no internet access at home, compared to nearly 20 percent of Black and Latino students and 37 percent of Native students. While these figures have always been alarming, it has never been more important to address this inequity than it is right now.

The Telecommunications Act calls upon the Federal Communications Commission to enhance the ability of libraries and elementary and secondary school classrooms to access advanced telecommunications services. As you are aware, many of our classrooms across the country are now being placed online due to school closures, but many of our students are unable to benefit from online learning because they lack the needed home internet access. We urge you to take immediate and aggressive action so we can keep classrooms open online as long as school buildings must be closed.

At this unprecedented time in our nation’s history, the FCC has the opportunity to make a dramatic impact on educational equity for millions of students. The coronavirus is impacting nearly every facet of American life. With your partnership, we can mitigate this disruption by continuing to provide the nation’s students the education they need and deserve.

Sincerely,

ends

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the second in a three-part series on eliminating the digital divide. Click here to read part one, which features the analysis of Dr. Steve Johnson, chancellor of WGU-Texas. Part Three, focusing on the work of La Joya ISD, will be published in our next edition.

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