Weekly Column

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One of the biggest transformations of COVID-19 has been in education, as schools were forced to suspend their in-person operations and transition to online learning in the middle of the spring semester. Teachers and administrators across the country have had to grapple with the challenges that come along with moving so abruptly from being with their students every day in the classroom to interacting with them primarily through a computer screen. They are doing their best, but it has not been easy.

This transition has been complicated by the fact that nearly 20 percent of Nebraska students lack wired internet access at home or have slow or unreliable connections. The move to online learning has been especially hard on our rural and low-income communities, where home access to a reliable internet connection is even less common.

In the process of their outreach to communities across Nebraska, my staff has heard from many educators and parents about this issue. In order to learn more, I hosted a virtual roundtable on distance learning on June 4, where I spoke with leaders across Nebraska about these challenges.

The roundtable brought experts from the education, telecommunications, and business sectors together to facilitate a discussion about the kinds of technology and telecommunications policies that are best for Nebraska students, both for the duration of COVID-19 and into the future.

We also discussed resources the CARES Act, which the Senate passed unanimously and President Trump signed into law at the end of March, has made available to students in Nebraska and across the country. The bill’s funding enabled the creation of two grant programs totaling $16 billion to meet remote learning needs nationwide. Nebraska has received over $16 million of these funds, which can cover anything from the purchase of school laptops to the improvement of high-speed internet access for students.

There is a widespread understanding of the importance of keeping people connected during these uniquely challenging times. In March, the Federal Communications Commission also announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. This is a voluntary pledge under which telephone and internet service providers have committed not to cancel service to residential and small business customers due to their inability to pay their bills because of COVID-19, to waive late fees that these customers incur due to economic circumstances caused by the pandemic, and to open their Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them.

Approximately 800 providers across the country have signed onto this pledge, which was recently extended until June 30. The Nebraska Public Service Commission has put forward a similar pledge on the state level, which incentivizes providers to offer unlimited data and other discounted or free services to customers who need them.

These initiatives are crucial to our response to COVID-19, but they are dealing with issues that existed before this outbreak began. All Nebraska students deserve the same level of opportunity in their education, and unequal access to the internet is a major obstacle to this goal. The coronavirus has exacerbated this problem, but it has always been there – and I look forward to working with leaders across Nebraska to solve it for good.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.