The Coronavirus Shows the Huge Digital Divide for Arizona’s Rural and Disadvantaged School Children

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Photo from Arizona Big Media

One of the many disastrous effects resulting from the closure of all Arizona schools and libraries from the Coronavirus was that children who were impoverished or lived in rural and more remote areas of the state could no longer secure access to high-speed Internet and computer usage.

According to reporting by AZ Central, approximately 100,000 children need a laptop so they can participate in digital lessons schools are endeavoring to give them while the physical institutions are closed.

Furthermore, other students face the quandary of being unable to access high-speed Internet from their home because of where they live. For example, according to AZ Central, only 25 percent of households in Cochise County have access to high-speed Internet. Even Maricopa County has 60 percent capability within the households in their boundaries.

To remedy this situation, several innovative approaches have been launched.

Governor Ducey and Superintendent Hoffman, appearing together, have called for the donation of mobile hotspots. At the date of the AZ Central article, about 200 have been donated.

Several organizations like the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation, Data Doctors, and Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology have announced donation drives of laptops. Please contact them if you have a laptop or mobile hot spot to offer.

In the Sunnyside Unified District in the Tucson area, Superintendent Steve Holmes had about two dozen school buses designated to locations where children can walk and pick up school meals and access high-speed Internet.

Children can also make some arrangements to pick up laptops from districts that can accommodate them.

While these efforts are noble and inspirational, the Coronavirus public health emergency shows that the huge digital divide for Arizona’s rural and disadvantaged school children needs to be addressed.

Many Democratic and Progressive activists and candidates, especially those representing families in areas where high-speed Internet is not readily available and children are in need of laptops, have called for greater action in the Legislature to get the needed educational aid to children and families.

David Lujan, the head of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress commented on the recent situation, writing:

“It is nice that these efforts are underway to bring more technology and Internet access to rural areas but we would not be in this situation if the state had not cut more than $2 billion in school facilities funding over the past decade as well as millions of dollars in school “additional assistance” funding that schools use for technology and other classroom instructional materials.  Unfortunately, it is during difficult times like these that the state’s decades of underfunding our public schools become so noticeable.”

Democratic Legislative District (LD) Six State Senate Candidate Colonel Felicia French relayed:

“While schools are closed, education has shifted to online learning. That has put many of Arizona’s rural children who don’t have access to technologies such as a computer and high-speed Internet, at a profound disadvantage.”

 “It’s great that hot spots and laptops are being donated to help children during this pandemic; however, this is a band-aid on a gaping wound.”

 “Since I began traveling around my rural Northern Arizona district in 2017, it became very clear to me that not everyone has equal access to the Internet (let alone high-speed internet). As of 2018, the AZ Department of Administration reported that almost 900,000 Arizonans (mostly in rural and tribal communities) have limited or no access to high-speed Internet.”

 “This digital divide has blocked our rural communities from educational and economic opportunities, as well as life-saving public safety and healthcare services. The current pandemic only makes this inequity even worse. Arizona has allowed this issue to go unaddressed for far too long, perpetuating the cycle of poverty in our rural communities.”

“Our state is already ranked at the bottom for almost every educational measure, including 48th for high school graduation rates, and rural areas are especially lagging. This pandemic will only exacerbate this education gap.”

“High-speed-internet should be affordable and accessible to every Arizonan—to improve education and health outcomes.”

Democratic LD District Eight State House Candidate Sharon Girard also weighed in, writing:

“Now more than ever our social isolation situation shines a bright light on inequities in our rural communities.  Broadband and rural Arizona is a subject that has been on the table for quite a while.  Congress is “working on it”.  What is our legislature doing” When will it get completely addressed?  Lack of good Internet access affects everyone, not just students.  Work from home and many businesses are impacted.  In LD8 we have rural communities in the Copper Corridor with poor to no Internet service.  Even in Eloy, where I live, we don’t have access to fiber-optic, only DSL.  In my local community, like others, the library is closed.  Many use the computers there for work, research and social communication.”

 “Without technology and the ability to access the Internet, those in our communities will be left behind.  Let’s level the playing field Arizona and get broadband and high- speed Internet to all.  This must be a priority if we want everyone in Arizona to succeed.”

 “Children are being left behind, especially in rural communities without broadband.  Their lack of access to the Internet will severely hinder their ability to keep up with classes and to compete with children in other areas where they have full access to the Internet.”

Gunnery Sergeant JoAnna Mendoza, one of the two Democrats vying for the LD 11 State Senate Democratic nomination commented:

“As someone who grew up in rural Arizona and currently serves on the school board in a rural area, we’ve known for years about the need for rural broadband expansion. The lack of rural broadband isn’t just a problem facing our education system during the pandemic. It consistently places rural communities at a disadvantage when it comes to education, economic growth, and healthcare. The challenges we face now with educating our children from home during the pandemic is more complicated than just not having laptops or internet access. The deeper problem stems from an overall lack of funding for our education system and a lack of resources and economic opportunities in rural communities. The Governor and State Legislature are responsible for ensuring that our schools receive adequate funding and can provide quality education to our children. This includes ensuring that our schools are prepared for emergencies and crises like this pandemic. Where have our elected officials been for the last couple of years?”

“The lack of funding has left our schools unprepared and unequipped to educate our kids, but this is only part of the problem. Many people in rural areas and lower-income communities don’t own a computer because they don’t have the additional income to invest in buying one, let alone afford Internet service. We need to have diverse job opportunities that meet the needs of our diverse communities. Even when jobs are available, they’re not always high-quality, high-wage jobs and offer minimal or no benefits – making it hard for folks to provide for their families. When working families have to make a decision about whether to pay for health care or next month’s rent, the last thing on their mind is access to the Internet or buying a computer.”

“Putting together a donation drive is a great start, but it’s just a band-aid. It won’t solve our digital divide problem in Arizona. In addition to addressing the need at hand, we need to be thinking about long-term solutions and ensuring that folks in rural areas can actually afford Internet access and computers. And that requires electing legislators who are committed to putting people first.”

 Educator Linda Patterson, the other Democrat contending for the LD 11 State Senate Nomination relayed:

“We must provide an education that all students need to grow and succeed. It is unacceptable to allow the inadequate/inequitable distribution of resources. The lack of computers, access to the internet and opening new avenues of learning for all create a system of ‘haves and have-nots’. This must change now!”

 “Increasing access to reliable, affordable Internet connections are crucial to helping our rural communities bridge the digital divide. In the past few years, the “Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative has created strong pathways that foster student success and advance economic prosperity in Arizona schools and communities that need it most.” (Governor Ducey, August 13, 2018). However, access to efficient high-speed Internet connections AND personal computers are slim to none in communities like Casa Grande, Eloy, Sacaton, Picture Rocks and portions of Marana. (Broadband Now, 2019)”

 

 “The vast majority of schools in Arizona provides students with individual computers to access digital (computer) learning. However, in many schools within LD11, this is not common practice. In the midst of recent school closures, our students are not being provided equal access to education. During an age where students must meet educational standards, we must provide equality in education.”

 “So, what is the solution to this dilemma? As your Senator, I will dedicate myself towards advocating for the robust education all students deserve. As a former teacher and principal, I have the expertise and experience to close the learning gaps that exist with students in our area. I look forward to doing so – as it is an extension of what I have pursued my entire life…fairness, equality and justice for all.”

 The Governor and the Arizona State Legislature need to learn from this public health emergency the state and the country find itself in and provide funds that bridge the digital divide for the Grand Canyon State’s students so “no child is left behind.”

If the majority can not be found in the legislature now to help these children, then that is another reason for voters to get on the Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL) and make sure they send their ballot in supporting candidates that support children and the disadvantaged.