Commentary: To make remote schooling work, families need more support

Originally published in Times Union on September 21, 2020.

In the past few weeks, many school districts across New York have announced they will be "remote only" for at least September, and possibly longer. Whether the buildings are open in a hybrid fashion or education is entirely remote, two things are very clear: Parents and children and school districts need free broadband access immediately to participate in remote or hybrid learning, and they need flexible, quality, affordable child care that supports parents' employment responsibilities.

The onset of the pandemic in New York was incredibly difficult for everyone, including the education community, but teachers and parents did their very best to continue student learning. School districts and community partners did what they could to provide computers and internet service for students, working to address fundamental inequities based on income and geography that this pandemic has laid bare. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wisely required child care for essential workers downstate, and schools had to help coordinate that care.

But now, six months later, we have learned many lessons and we must do better.

Whether children are in child care settings or learning remotely at home, distance learning requires reliable access to the internet. Yet too many of our students throughout New York, from our cities to rural communities to suburbs, do not have broadband access. Cost is a major obstacle. In the spring, many districts worked creatively to provide internet access to their students, bringing hot spots to neighborhoods, enabling WiFi in school parking lots, and driving school buses around their community with internet access. But this piecemeal approach is wholly insufficient and too many children continue to go without, widening educational disparities.

Today, broadband is as essential as books and paper used to be, and we need to recognize it as such by guaranteeing free universal access. In a state Education Department survey of schools (with 48 percent responding) more than 500,000 students have been identified as lacking internet access or computers. And although there is some help for people who cannot afford it, New York should go further. We should insist that telecommunications companies step up and voluntarily provide free access to every student and school district in the state for the duration of this pandemic, effective immediately. Free internet access is a fundamental educational need that we must address, at least for the duration of the pandemic.

In addition, we need Congress to immediately provide funds to allow local child care resource and referral agencies to coordinate with local school districts to create one-stop child care services. These services must be flexibly and affordably aligned to the needs of parents and their children. Parents need reassurance that when they are at work and their children are not scheduled to attend in-person instruction, their children will be cared for and remote learning will be supported. Child care providers and school districts have gone to great lengths to support their families, but they need additional resources to coordinate and complement one another's services. This is not a luxury; this is fundamental to rebuilding our economy and to educating our children. Congress must act, and act now.

New York has much to be proud of — we were hit with the worst and beat COVID-19 back, and are now beginning a safe path forward. Let's make sure our path includes all children and families throughout the state and leaves no one behind.