Imagine living in a home without a computer. Or access to broadband internet. Imagine your family’s only connection to the internet is a smartphone with a data plan that is prohibitively expensive. Now imagine your kids — both of them —need to get their education through that smartphone. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve been laid off and you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to afford the phone bill.
When I talked to educators and advocates who work with migrant children in the Yakima Valley recently about the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on their students, they told me families in their region are increasingly facing this situation and others like it.
But even before COVID-19 began spreading in communities across Washington state and the nation, these challenges were typical for many families in historically overlooked communities — including households with low incomes, tribes and other communities of color, and people in rural areas.
Over the past few months, the COVID-19 emergency has shined an even brighter light on the inequities that have long prevented many people from accessing the digital skills, knowledge and resources to fully participate in our society and economy — bringing the potential costs of inaction on this issue into sharp focus: According to a Microsoft survey published in 2019, about half of our country’s population is not using the internet at broadband speeds, implying that many of these families don’t even have access to reliable broadband internet. The current crisis has made increasingly evident how the pandemic has taken this existing digital divide and turned it into an ever-widening chasm. And without an immediate intervention, the consequences for society on the other side of this crisis could be dire.
While Congress has taken some initial steps to help close the digital divide during the pandemic, it hasn’t been nearly enough to prevent so many in our communities from falling further through the cracks as we continue dealing with this crisis. That’s why Congress must include my Digital Equity Act, a comprehensive bill that has been endorsed by key digital inclusion advocates, in the next coronavirus relief package. The Digital Equity Act would create new federal funding to support a diverse array of digital education initiatives at the state and local level — from providing access to mobile hotspots for families without reliable broadband, to teaching workers, educators, and others how to take full advantage of online tools, resources and more as remote work, distance learning and online communication increasingly becomes the new normal.
The Digital Equity Act is one of several important steps we need to take toward helping to close the digital gap that right now is preventing many students from learning online, workers from working, and people from accessing resources and benefits in these trying times. As Congress continues developing the next coronavirus relief package, I’m going to keep pushing to make sure that digital equity is adequately addressed in our nation’s response to this crisis. Because for the students across Washington — in rural and urban communities — and the countless families out there right now without the tools and skills they need to stay on top of their work, handle business or connect with loved ones, inaction from the federal government is not an option.