PFT Testifies at PA House Dems Policy Committee: Bridging the Digital Divide

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Hillary Linardopoulos, Legislative Representative

Testimony for House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing: Bridging the Digital Divide

March 30, 2021

 

Thank you Chairman Bizzarro, Representatives Cephas, Snyder, Harris, Schweyer, and the entire House Democratic Policy Committee for holding this important hearing on “Bridging the Digital Divide.” I’m Hillary Linardopoulos, Legislative Representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. At a time when remote learning continues for the majority of our students, this hearing is a timely and important opportunity to share some of our insight into virtual learning and the challenges our students and educators have faced throughout the pandemic.

 

In March 2020, in just a couple of days, educators and students had to upend years of practice and reinvent an entire school system, amidst a global pandemic the likes of which none of us has ever experienced. As we move forward, towards an expanded return to school buildings, let’s make very clear that schools have been open this whole time--it’s buildings that have been closed.

 

Educators have undertaken creative and innovative ways to teach through a screen. We’ve seen culinary teachers engage in virtual cooking challenges with their students. Science teachers holding experiments in their kitchens. Teachers travelling to deliver learning kits to each of their families. But none of this can replace in person learning, and it’s why this union has been working diligently to ensure that a safe reopening of school buildings is possible.

 

A very significant issue throughout this crisis has been technology access. Technology and reliable internet access has served as an essential bridge between school and home during the pandemic. We appreciate and applaud the City’s PHLConnectEd program, launched a year ago to address the issue of connectivity for many of our students and has enabled more than 15,000 internet connections. Since its launch, the program has expanded to include additional families for eligibility.

 

However, with the program’s free internet scheduled to expire in June 2022, it is critical that we think now about ensuring that internet access and reliable connectivity is a permanent and easily accessible tool for students and families. Further, a one-time loan of a Chromebook or other device is not a long term solution. A plan needs to be in place to ensure that technology is kept up to date. Technology access should include up-to-date devices as well as reliable internet access.

The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated so many of the inequities that have been deeply rooted in our society for so long. As the District scrambled to provide access to the technology needed to make remote learning accessible for students, it was a rush and a push that did not take place in wealthier, whiter school districts.

 

As we saw students and families lined up to receive a District issued device weeks into the pandemic, it should be lost on no one that in the surrounding school districts, students were able to seamlessly transition into virtual classrooms, as 1:1 technology programs are commonplace in many of the suburban districts.

 

In fact, a 2020 Carnegie Mellon and MIT study demonstrated the effect that both race and poverty have on internet access. In an article summarizing the study, The Journal author Dian Schaffhauser writes that the “research project quantified how much less likely low-income and non-white children and youth were to have access to the internet than their peers. As the researchers wrote, ‘The empirical insights highlight how the digital divide might exacerbate existing educational inequalities in the face of school closures due to social distancing.’"

 

This inequity is pervasive in so many aspects of our society and our education system. And the digital divide is a clear example of how, for too long, students of color and students experiencing poverty have been shortchanged time and again. The return to in person learning does not mean that our attention should shift from addressing the digital divide. It is one facet of a deeply inequitable system that we need to continue to address in a holistic, long lasting way.

 

As we move towards allocating resources on a state level, from both within the state coffers and from the Federal government, these conversations and real plans to move forward will be key. Access to the internet and technology will be critical to help students continue to navigate their education. A majority of students are still learning fully virtually, and those in person learning in person part-time. Further, social distancing requirements make the use of a computer in class even more necessary.

 

Equitable access to the internet and to updated technology should be a given for every student, and it’s not. Now is the time to make concrete plans to ensure that this is a reality for all of our young people. We can look to funding in the American Rescue Plan, such as the $7 Billion available to assist schools and libraries to bridge the ‘Homework Gap’ during the pandemic. And we can, and must, look to a long-term systemic investment in ensuring that our students have the tools and resources they need to thrive.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to join this important hearing today. I have attached several articles and studies for reference, and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

 

 

References:

 

PHLConnectED:

●      phila.gov/2021-03-12-the-city-of-philadelphia-marks-one-year-anniversary-of-schools-closing-with-phlconnected-updates-and-milestones/

●      phila.gov/2020-12-14-city-kicks-off-phlconnected-week-with-expanded-program-eligibility

 

Carnegie Mellon & MIT study:

●      thejournal.com/articles/2020/05/14/poverty-race-linked-to-lack-of-internet-for-students.aspx

●      papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3572922

 

ARP ‘Homework Gap’ Funding:

●      jdsupra.com/legalnews/biden-signs-stimulus-package-fcc-set-to-7237696/

●      comm-law.com/arpa-provides-72-billion-to-address-the-homework-gap