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Teachers unions: Verizon, Comcast need to do a better job at getting internet to the students who need it | COMMENTARY

Kimberly Vasquez, a junior at Baltimore City College, a student activist from Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS), speaks about the necessity of internet access. She was joined at the rally outside City Hall by Council members Shannon Sneed, left, and Zeke Cohen, right, and other advocates who said Comcast must close the digital divide now and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kimberly Vasquez, a junior at Baltimore City College, a student activist from Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society (SOMOS), speaks about the necessity of internet access. She was joined at the rally outside City Hall by Council members Shannon Sneed, left, and Zeke Cohen, right, and other advocates who said Comcast must close the digital divide now and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. (Amy Davis)

All children deserve the opportunity to learn, but the coronavirus pandemic is testing our ability to provide the necessary resources for them to access this right. Current learning conditions due to the pandemic are exacerbating the already stark divide in opportunity that exists for students who don’t grow up in wealthy school districts.

A lack of access to the internet is shutting out many students completely. The solution is no-cost, high-speed internet for all students and educators. Internet giants Comcast and Verizon have the power to meet that need.

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Online learning is only possible for children who have access to a safe and quiet space, a computer and reliable internet. Not all homes are able to transform into learning environments. Governments closed the doors to our schools, but didn’t take steps to ensure all students could continue learning at home. Our educators have gone to extraordinary lengths to adapt lessons and develop curricula based entirely on e-learning, but we lack a foundation that can only be provided through the support of government and private corporations: reliable access to the internet, at no cost for students and educators.

While school districts across the state conduct surveys to identify the exact amount of families in need, we know that the current infrastructure and available technology is insufficient. Students burn through their monthly allotted data and run up huge overage charges just to download assignments. Students are being forced to access public Wi-Fi networks from cars, and are attempting to do work on their phones or laptops from school parking lots, hoping to reach their school’s network.

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Others on the Comcast Internet Essentials plan are operating with such low speeds that they are kicked out of video conferences with peers and educators. Being priced out of internet access is a reality also for many educators who have living costs including health care, child care, jobs and food. Maryland’s educators are facing crises too, beyond the issue of how to effectively teach remotely.

Government has a moral and legal obligation to provide quality public education to all students, not simply to those who have internet access. Every week of education lost is a week they cannot get back. The ones who suffer disproportionately are from low-income households who already have the deck stacked against them.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has specifically encouraged internet service providers to do more for students, including opening up public Wi-Fi networks, lifting data caps for subscribers and waiving late fees. Companies are stepping up all over the country. In places like New York City and Minneapolis, Spectrum is offering free broadband to households with students. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute is working with local internet service providers to offer new Wi-Fi hot spots to underserved municipalities. The Comcast COVID-19 response plan says it clearly: “Keeping the internet accessible and reliable is more important than ever.”

Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast, which serve the Prince George’s County and Baltimore City regions, net billions in profits each year. Just last year, Verizon boasted $31.4 billion in profits, while Comcast reported a whopping $109 billion in consolidated revenue, an increase of 15.3% from the year before. The internet is not a public utility, yet all of our public services depend entirely on access.

These providers share another common trait: well-documented histories of not paying their fair share in taxes, despite record profits. The impact is less revenue for state and federal governments, which results in fewer resources for things like public education. Our students lose out already because of generous tax breaks to multibillion-dollar corporations. The bare minimum that they could do now is step up to help students and educators in crisis.

Comcast and Verizon can immediately solve a major problem facing children: Give no-cost, high-speed internet access to students and educators. They have the technology and capacity to help, and the size and scale to act now. Given our government’s legal and moral imperative to ensure all students have access to education, the burden is on elected officials to work with internet providers to ensure access to all students and educators.

Theresa Mitchell Dudley (tdudley@pgcea.org) is president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association. Diamonté Brown (dbrown@baltu.org) is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

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