By Jim Livingston
Livingston is president of the Virginia Education Association.
Thousands of Virginia public school students this month are leaving lab reports and lockers behind to take a well-deserved summer break.
Unfortunately, there are an estimated 645,000 Virginians, a significant number of them students, who live in homes or communities without sufficient access to high-speed internet service. For these students, lack of such a basic tool to navigate modern-day life may contribute to “summer brain drain.” That’s the term used to describe the fact that students’ accumulated knowledge at the end of the academic year will often diminish slightly before schools open again in the fall.
While students in Richmond, Fairfax, Virginia Beach and other communities will benefit this summer from high-speed internet, which encourages educational exploration, many students in Southwest Virginia will have no broadband access. Without the ability to access the internet in their homes, students wishing to go online are sometimes left to go to fast food restaurant parking lots for a connection!
Virginia’s future depends on the generation of students in public schools today, and our Commonwealth dare not waste the talents of a single one by failing to provide a basic building block of life in our high-tech world. Ramping up Virginia’s broadband capabilities is an educational, economic, moral, and civic imperative.
Thankfully, our leaders in Richmond have taken important steps to address this inequality. Gov. Northam last year set the goal of universal broadband access for all Virginians within a decade. To bolster that effort, the General Assembly provided $19 million of funding to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, the state’s grant program for broadband deployment in unserved areas. While not the $50 million Gov. Northam originally introduced, the funding is still a significant increase that will connect tens of thousands unserved communities. Looking ahead towards 2020 and beyond, the General Assembly must continue to aggressively invest in bridging the digital divide.
Digital literacy is an essential skill for all public school students, and without high-speed internet access, many students will fall behind. Governor Northam’s goal of universal broadband access within a decade is an ambitious one. It is also the right goal. In our high-tech word, it’s unacceptable to have to tell a parent of a second-grader that their child will finally get connected to this basic resource sometime in high school. We can and must do better.