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How can kids participate in virtual learning with no internet access?| COMMENTARY

Baltimore Teachers Union, Prince George's County Educators' Association, teachers and students hold a car and bike caravan rally from Camden Yards to Comcast's city headquarters at McHenry Row. The National Day of Resistance action is to demand free internet access at higher essential speed for students and educators until 60 days after full restoration of school.
Baltimore Teachers Union, Prince George's County Educators' Association, teachers and students hold a car and bike caravan rally from Camden Yards to Comcast's city headquarters at McHenry Row. The National Day of Resistance action is to demand free internet access at higher essential speed for students and educators until 60 days after full restoration of school. (Kenneth K. Lam)

With just weeks before school systems around the state start a virtual fall semester, too many students live in areas with inadequate internet service needed to access their lessons and classes by computer.

Internet provider Comcast Xfinity could change that by making their services available to vulnerable populations who are in danger of falling behind without it. Instead of doing their part to ensure our kids have fair access to their education, Comcast Xfinity sits back and enjoys record-breaking numbers of new customers and profit earnings as a result of the pandemic.

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As a part of an Aug. 3rd National Day of Resistance, teachers unions from Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Philadelphia demanded Comcast improve the internet access and quality of their service before the school year starts. At the same time, Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia city councils are proposing and passing resolutions demanding more from Comcast as well.

So far the internet and cable company doesn’t seem to be listening.

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While Comcast’s internet division had its best second quarter increase in new-paying customers in 13 years, raking in revenue forecast at $14.6 billion with earnings of $6 billion, underfunded schools and cities nationwide have been pouring millions of dollars into addressing the digital divide. In Baltimore, fighting this divide falls along stark racial lines. In our city, one in every two Black and Latinx residents don’t have access to broadband internet. If we do not get our kids online by the start of the digital reopening of school, we will effectively deny a child’s right to an education to half of Baltimore’s Black and Latinx students.

The city of Baltimore recently allocated $3 million from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to buy laptops and internet for school children, but that is not enough to close the divide.

Even our cash-strapped schools have done their part. Severe underfunding is why I have taught in classrooms with no air conditioner and no heat. I teach in conditions so challenging, that in January of 2019 one of my students, Deshawna Bryant, went to the hospital for two weeks after frigid classroom temperatures sent her into a sickle cell crisis. Despite our starved financial resources, our schools have used their limited funds to purchase thousands of devices and hot spots for our kids. Every individual school was also instructed to give their students any device that wasn’t nailed to the floor.

We are all making sacrifices, yet Comcast claims that our tax dollars need to do even more. In a recent article about my Baltimore 12th District City Council Green Party run, Kristie Fox, Comcast’s executive of corporate communications, said: “Solving a problem as vast and complex as the digital divide requires collaboration across the City — with the school district, elected officials, nonprofit community partners, and other private-sector companies — so everyone is part of the solution.”

Everyone Comcast’s statement passes the buck to has been a part of the solution — except Comcast. Even local foundations, like the Fund for Educational Excellence who raised over $100,000 from individuals and foundations, have been working hard to help get kids online.

Sadly, instead of rising to the occasion and offering low-income families functional and affordable internet service, Comcast lures them in with free service before charging them a couple of months later. The Internet Essentials service is so slow that two siblings cannot be in their digital classroom at the same time.

This is how Comcast rakes in new customers and profits, while our students stay locked out of their constitutional right to an education. Egregiously, as of late last week Comcast was demanding $650,000 from the Baltimore City Public Schools budget so they don’t disconnect internet service to 7,000 households — an act that would violate Governor Larry Hogan’s March executive order that was extended on Friday, July 31st. This order explicitly prohibits the termination of service by utility and internet service providers during Maryland’s state of emergency.

If we do not solve this problem, we face an educational deficit that will affect our nation’s children for years to come. Before school starts, Comcast needs to provide faster speeds, open up all hotspots, and provide free Internet Essentials service from the time of enrollment until 60 days after the full restoration of school. It is past time Comcast starts behaving like the responsible corporation they claim to be and, as Ms. Fox says, “become a part of the solution.”

Franca Muller Paz (franca@francaforthepeople.com) is a teacher and building representative of the Baltimore Teachers Union and District 12 Baltimore City Council candidate.

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