Written by Jude Hebert
The COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly every facet of our everyday lives, from mask mandates to social gatherings to small business operations. But perhaps the area that the virus had the greatest impact is in our schools.
When school districts implemented lockdown measures in March 2020, children were forced to take classes almost exclusively online. This sudden pivot highlighted just how reliant we are on technology. Unfortunately, it was a shift that also shined a major light on inequality regarding internet access and connectivity.
For example, students who didn’t have a reliable internet connection at home weren’t able to attend school virtually. In the early days of the pandemic especially, it was not uncommon to read news stories about kids going to a McDonald’s or Starbucks in order to connect to the internet so they could go to class.
During my year-plus of remote learning, I witnessed firsthand how unreliable internet, or even a complete lack of access, affected students’ abilities to participate, learn, and grow. Some students even stopped showing up to class altogether.
According to Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, during the first week of the 2020-2021 school year, “Average, daily student attendance [was] 88.4% compared with 91.8% for the first 7 days of school last year.” And the Los Angeles Times reported in March 2021 that more than 13,000 middle and high school students consistently disengaged during fall 2020 while an additional 56,000 did not actively participate on a daily basis.
It’s no surprise then to learn that the United States lags behind other developed nations when it comes to internet access. One piece of legislation aimed at addressing the technological gap is the new federal infrastructure bill, a part of which proposes broadband expansion that would provide more people with access to affordable and reliable internet.
Right now, this issue is particularly glaring in low-income communities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. These areas have internet speeds 40 percent slower than those in high-income neighborhoods. Further, in rural counties, 65 percent of households connect to the internet, compared to 78 percent of households nationwide, according to the Census Bureau. The inclusion of broadband in the infrastructure bill would undoubtedly level the playing field with respect to reliable high-speed internet, and make it accessible and more affordable for all.
Although Jewish scripture pre-dates the internet and doesn’t mention the use of technology or equal access to the internet, it does teach us about Achyut and our social responsibility to others in challenging situations. This value is not often applied in our modern, fast-paced technological world, but it teaches us that we should strive to provide equal access to tools that people need to thrive, which more often than not includes reliable internet.
When it comes down to it, this is an equity issue. Investment in broadband as part of the federal infrastructure bill would be a significant step toward closing the technological divide.
Jude Hebert is JCJ High School Fellow. He is a rising junior at Alexander Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles, California.