Internet should be an ‘essential utility,’ WA schools chief says as state pulls plug on rest of term

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(Photo via Gov. Jay Inslee/Medium)

The longtime problem of digital inequity has been thrown into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic as schools turn to online learning. Washington state is calling on the tech and telecom industries to help narrow that digital divide now that in-person learning is canceled for the rest of the school year.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

“We are working with our internet providers and software leaders in our state, and other private sector partners, to connect our students and educators with what they need for teaching,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday during a press conference announcing the extended school shutdown.

Washington is asking internet companies and other partners in the state to provide hotspots in rural and urban areas with poor connectivity, Inslee said. He is asking tech and telecom providers to expand service and provide additional assistance.

Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal compared the internet to a utility, a position long held by advocates for municipal broadband, during the press conference.

“If there’s anyone today who does not see telecom and connectivity as an essential utility, much like water and clean air, then I would challenge them to think about our history,” Reykdal said. “Right now we must sew the seeds of complete innovation in connectivity for families. It is the way we will learn. It is the way of the future.”

The state is currently collecting data from approximately 1.2 million public school students and 100,000 private school students to find out which families lack access to reliable internet, Rekydal said.

Inslee initially mandated the closure of all schools in the state in mid-March and until April 24. Since then some schools have turned to online learning, though equity issues abound.

A few hours before Monday’s press conference, Seattle-based Amazon announced it will donate 8,200 laptops to Seattle Public Schools students, supporting the district’s efforts to equitably implement remote learning during the shutdown. The donation, valued at more than $2 million, will focus on elementary school students who don’t have access to devices at home.

Wave Broadband is offering free WiFi to qualifying low-income families for 60 days and waiving late payment fees for customers affected by COVID-19.

Comcast is making its Xfinity WiFi hotspot across the country free to the public, regardless of whether users are customers. Comcast is also waiving late fees and committing not to cancel service.

CenturyLink made similar commitments, waiving late fees and promising not to terminate service for 60 days.

Though new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Washington, the rate of increase appears to be slowing under broad social distancing measures.

“We’re making some progress in our state and Washingtonians should be proud of this,” Inslee said. “It’s reasonable to expect this time will give us what we need to feel secure we have come through the worst of this pandemic.”

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