Commentary: Young learners need broadband to stay afloat

By James Spadola

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of our weak underbellies, but the digital divide — and its effects on education — is one of the most significant.

James Spadola

With Delaware’s public schools starting the new academic year mostly or fully remote, we urgently need to get every Delawarean connected. It’s a complex problem, which is why everyone — from local school officials and community groups to federal lawmakers and broadband providers — needs to be at the table.

Delaware has the highest internet speeds in the country, and high-speed broadband is available in 98% of homes in our state. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment, and efforts are already underway to connect remaining unserved areas.

The rub is that despite this widespread availability, not everyone signs up or has the skills and devices to use it if they do. Recent estimates suggest that 9.7 million K-12 students nationwide don’t have reliable internet connectivity at home to support distance learning.

The large number of Americans who don’t adopt broadband at home despite its widespread availability is known as the “adoption gap.” And its roots are only starting to be understood.

Broadband providers have offered low-cost service to low-income families, veterans and others for years — along with digital training and discounted computers — to tackle the adoption gap. During this crisis, many have stepped in with additional offers of free Wi-Fi access and home service.

States received $13.2 billion in education funding from the CARES Act pandemic-relief package, which local school districts can use to help get students computers, tablets and broadband at home. Many districts around the country have also announced partnerships with providers to offer the students who need it free service in their homes.

Leaders in Congress have even proposed creating a $50-a-month Emergency Broadband Benefit to help keep low-income and unemployed Americans connected during this crisis. Widely lauded by experts, it has unfortunately fallen victim to the beltway’s partisan bickering.

As important as all these efforts are, it’s becoming clear that the cost of broadband isn’t the biggest barrier to getting everyone connected. Most people who don’t subscribe say they simply don’t believe there’s a need — in fact, over 60% of Delaware residents who aren’t connected cite this lack of relevance as their biggest reason why.

And when it comes to changing these attitudes, schools and community organizations must lead.

For years, Read Aloud Delaware has instilled the critical importance of reading to young, preschool-aged learners as the cornerstone to closing achievement gaps in education years down the road. It sparks what is the core of all learning: curiosity.

The same rule applies in the digital arena. If we spark early interest in online learning as a gateway to all that is fun and exciting, we trigger a switch that lasts a lifetime. Every child — from every race and income category — is born with this innate sense of wonder and desire to learn. Once a child’s curiosity and desire to learn is engaged, the rest becomes a lot easier.

How to tap and sustain early-childhood curiosity isn’t always obvious. It requires creativity since different students from different backgrounds respond differently. Once we succeed, this will be enormously effective in closing performance gaps later in school, particularly for students from low-income families and communities of color.

In our program, we’ve seen evidence of what the research has borne out for many years — that exposing young students to rich vocabulary through one-on-one reading sparks a fascination with language and learning that results in much greater student achievement thereafter. With the pandemic, we have moved our one-on-one reading online and launched an innovative new program to increase kindergarten readiness virtually.

Getting every student online has to be a national priority, so students don’t fall further behind and start to lose that love for learning. This is especially important if we are going to close the performance gaps in underprivileged communities. And as we begin to instill in our children a love of learning as a core value, we also need to show them and their parents how broadband is a key part of that journey — and to help them understand the difference between educational screen time that inspires and engages minds versus mindless, attention-sapping filler content that doesn’t.

This pandemic is a national reckoning from which good can come if we learn the right lessons. One lesson is inclusiveness — we shouldn’t rest until we discover how to turn on every child’s innate love of learning and until we get every child connected and online through the broadband gateway.

This is a cultural and valuable lesson of this challenging year, and it’s one we all need to start focusing on with more intensity.

James Spadola is executive director of Read Aloud Delaware, a nonprofit dedicated to early-childhood literacy throughout the state.