As we gap-fill our ideal of in-person instruction with digital learning, we must ensure internet access as a public utility. Otherwise, we leave students without learning options at all. Our school systems were unprepared for the collateral damage caused by a failed national response in the spring, but the truth is, the lack of access to the internet was a pre-COVID problem that this pandemic is exacerbating in the most underserved communities. As Gwinnett rapidly responded to school closure, we lost touch with more than 3,500 students who were without laptops or access to the internet. If equal educational opportunity is to be truly guaranteed, then the network necessary to access it must be guaranteed too; lest we risk privatizing a good that we intend to be public.
Right now, the virus dictates our future. And so does good leadership. While we are operating with the most up-to-date information provided by our public health experts, for many questions, we will not know the appropriate answer until it is irrelevant. We need to have a sense of humility as we redress and amend our decision-making processes. But we also need to make firm decisions that give enough runway for our system to actually work and for our staff to effectively serve our students. While it is unreasonable for us to demand or expect omniscience on the part of any school leader or elected official, we can do much better than this. And we must demand better from those who have the power to properly fund and equip our schools in the midst of this crisis.
The immediate federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that we have the capacity to find a way where there is no visible path forward. When employees were at the brink of being laid off, we provided payroll protection. When most Americans needed a stimulus to pay the rent and buy critical goods, we wrote $1,200 checks. If education is an essential business, as it should be, we need to prioritize the conditions that will promote our collective success, health and learning accordingly. That must include teachers and staff. As online learning fills our current void and grows in its utilization, we must use this opportunity to push for internet access for all.
This is a call to action. If our state and local government cannot implement basic public health guidance nor invest in the infrastructure to expand testing and internet access, we call upon American companies to do so. We must systematically address this public health and economic dilemma with the same attention and urgency that we do with every other profitable one.
The future of our children depends on it.
Everton Blair serves on the Gwinnett County Board of Education.