OPINION: High-Quality Internet Has Been Long Overdue for All Seattle Students

by Nisha Daniels and Heather Hart 

Schools are a great equalizer. On March 13, 2020, schools across Washington state shut down all classroom learning. With the shuttering of schools, thousands of students in our community lost their access to computers and internet connectivity. For many in our South Seattle community the digital divide is acute and there is little relief in sight.

Many of the places where students and community members could access the internet are now closed. Libraries, coffeeshops and the ever-present Starbucks are no longer available as internet hubs. Losing access to the internet has made learning and communication with families more challenging. As a teacher I (Nisha Daniels) see the disparity: 13 out of 26 students in my class don’t have access to the internet — and this is just one class out of an approximately 400-student Title 1 (high poverty) school. 

There is a lot of educational content — YouTube videos, English and math apps, homework that needs to be printed. Students with access to the internet have many ways to stay engaged, interact with each other and continue learning. After many weeks of waiting, many of our families have received technology from Seattle Public Schools or community groups such as Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’ Tech Exchange (i.e. computers/laptops, tablets). But how is any learning going to happen when there is no internet? A computer without internet access in our digital age is like a boat without a motor — it’s not going to get our students very far.

The internet options currently available are inadequate for low-income families. While we thank companies such as Comcast for providing “free” internet for two months, the barriers are still steep. Many of our families cannot afford the year-long contracts or are reluctant to sign up because they don’t have strong credit histories or because of language barriers. Other companies have not stepped forward with affordable options. 

Some families call internet companies to schedule installation appointments and wait, but then NO ONE SHOWS UP. Other families, especially the children, get excited about the prospect of having home internet for the first time, only to have their hopes crushed when they find out the internet company can’t complete the installation because the family didn’t know or couldn’t get needed landlord permission to have the installation completed (i.e. drilling holes, etc.), or other problems come up. 

As a teacher and as a PTA leader, respectively, we see affluent families engaging in online lessons and video chats every week. But the ones that don’t have internet access are our hardest- hit families, and they are worried. These are the families that show up weekly at one of the 26 Seattle Public Schools free lunch sites to pick up paper school-work packets telling us “we can’t have the learning stop.” For these families, getting their students access to education during this COVID-19 shutdown is among their top concerns. The paper school-work packets are helpful, but it doesn’t replace the amount of learning that can be accessed online or in other real-time mediums. 

Amazon and the Alliance for Education helped to close the gap by donating 8,200 computers to Seattle Public Schools elementary students. We are thankful for this generous gift. Families are saying thank you and asking, “Teacher, does it come with the internet?” And, “Ms. Daniels, please help me get the internet.” Every week as a teacher I (Nisha Daniels) get at least five phone calls asking me these questions. The Chromebooks handed to families are only half as powerful as they could be if we don’t also give these families the internet they need! 

Internet access doesn’t just support student academics. Educators and families use the internet to keep in communication with their families. Our PTA has worked hard to stay connected to our school community, especially to families we know are struggling because of the economic downturn. Without internet access, maintaining connections during this prolonged shutdown is harder. As a school community, we want to make sure every family stays safe, and has food, continued housing and other support services. For families with internet access, it allows family support workers and social workers to keep a human and supportive connection going with that family. Families with internet access can also search for solutions on their own, such as applying for jobs, having access to bank accounts, viewing online medical records and getting educational support for their children. For those without internet access, the needs are more acute. 

Families want the best for their children. Families are stepping up to support learning at home, and now we need state and local leaders, business partners and the community to step up and find quick solutions for affordable or universal free internet access. 

While children are resilient, they know, understand and feel the inequality and inequities happening to them. When kids return to schools, some will have had hours of virtual class time and the experience of safety and security afforded by access to information. Others won’t. Do we want the legacy of COVID-19 to also be one that exacerbates opportunity and achievement gaps because of a lack of internet access? We shouldn’t let internet access be another injustice felt by our most vulnerable children.

Join us in letting school leaders, city council, state electeds and officials know the importance of home internet service to quality learning, especially during COVID-19. Make a phone call or send an email now! Students can’t wait.

Nisha Daniels is a first-grade teacher at Beacon Hill International School. Heather Hart is a parent and PTA leader at Beacon Hill International School. Together they have been working with other educators and parents to support families and the broader Beacon Hill community through the COVID-19 crisis. 

Featured image: by Alex Garland