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Without digital equity, our educational gap will only grow

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Jazmin Rascon and twin sister Judith sit on their front steps while doing schoolwork on their laptops during the pandemic.

Jazmin Rascon and twin sister Judith work on their laptops on the front steps of their home in Delta on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The Millard School District is helping students who may lack home internet access for school assignments from falling behind by parking school buses equipped with Wi-Fi around the district.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Murray School District, like most Utah organizations, had no notice of the implications we would immediately face. When the governor declared statewide closures and we realized the closure would not be ending soon, we diligently worked to find internet access for students quickly. 

Educating more than 6,300 students in Murray meant we had the potential for 6,300-plus challenges to keep students connected, educated and progressing. To say it was a daunting task is an understatement; it was a tsunami that hit without warning. As the school district’s technology department lead, I researched internet providers throughout the area and felt a wave of relief when Comcast came to the rescue with a low-income product — the only one in the market. Because it was paramount to get the internet into users’ homes, we chose Comcast for its expanded Internet Essentials program that allowed students to quickly get online, study and sustain their learning momentum. 

Internet Essentials, I learned, was designed to provide an affordable internet plan for low-income families — to give internet access to those who otherwise could not afford it. But it didn’t stop there. Comcast provided print literature to guide parents and customer service support to guide families through the maze of online access and remote learning. Simply put, it were prepared for a pandemic.

Since remote meetings were instantly in demand, Comcast expanded capabilities to better assist teachers, parents and students in Murray with Zoom meetings and online tools that required a beefy internet bandwidth. The program’s internet service speed increased from 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 Mbps upstream to 50 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream. Without this, students and families would have fallen seriously behind peers and others who had adjusted to remote learning and working.

To think globally but act locally is a pattern that succeeded when we needed it. Technology, infrastructure and forward-thinking were crucial initiatives that made a difference for the better for everyone, and that was especially beneficial at the grassroots level in the homes of students when it was needed most.

For example, we had a parent in the school district whose internet access was disconnected because they could not pay their monthly service charges for the plan. During normal times, that might not have much of an impact, but during the pandemic, they were effectively cut off from the world around them. No internet meant no class participation for students, no online learning, no research capabilities from home and, for the parents, no remote access to work meetings, access to COVID-19 resources and information, or even to apply for jobs online.

During those trying times early on in the pandemic, we had the ability to refer parents in difficult circumstances to connect to the internet with full access through the Internet Essentials program, a service that was launched 10 years ago and has connected more than 800 individuals in Murray alone and 160,000 individuals throughout Utah. In normal times, parents would not have been given the service, but because of extreme pandemic circumstances that shut down the world, a community-focused Comcast removed barriers and provided a plan they could afford. 

That service expanded to many school district families who had not been online but suddenly needed internet access, which they received and were able to function with others normally. 

From my chair, I saw that it was not just digital equity we were dealing with. We were facing an educational gap, one that even the Utah State Board of Education called the most disruptive experience to affect education in a century. Had we not had quick internet access for the thousands of Murray students and families, the effect would have been much worse, spiraling students down to levels that would hamper their competitive advantages going forward in life. 

As we successfully emerge from the pandemic, let’s not forget the lessons we’ve learned. Let’s continue to pull together, to step up and to help our communities continue to face challenges and overcome obstacles together. Perhaps that’s the best way to beat a pandemic.

Jason Eyre is the technology department coordinator at Murray City School District in Murray, Utah. He oversees all technology at the district, including the 1:1 Chromebook Rollout and Private LTE network.