Closing the Communication Chasm for Schools and Families

Opinion | Policy and Government

Closing the Communication Chasm for Schools and Families

By Brian Grey     May 29, 2020

Closing the Communication Chasm for Schools and Families

In the United States, school closures in response to COVID-19 have been swift and sweeping. Since the beginning of March, 96 percent of K-12 schools have closed across the country, affecting virtually all of the 57.9 million students in those grades. And while most states have extended school closures through the end of the academic year, little is certain about what will happen in the months ahead, much less this fall and winter.

In the absence of in-person instruction, educators are being forced to rely on technology more heavily than ever. But a staggering number of families lack access to the digital tools required for learning at home.

Unfortunately, for many schools and districts, the need for digital services and software to support basic communication between teachers, parents and students across the digital divide is one that is often overlooked and underfunded. As CEO of Remind, a communications platform for education, I’ve been able to see the aching need for communication and, what’s worse, how the lack of funds is likely to rapidly accelerate the inequities in our education system and ultimately society.

As a result, I’m asking you to join with me in asking policymakers to appropriate emergency funding specifically for schools and districts to purchase the services and tools essential for communicating with all teachers, parents and students.

For schools across the country, there is a digital chasm. The pandemic didn’t create this problem, but it has laid it bare. To date, much of the discussion around the digital divide has focused on the lack of devices and internet access: Only 56 percent of U.S. households with less than $30,000 in income have broadband at home. When it comes to education, even partial or occasional access to technology isn’t sufficient when students have to contend with shared devices, bad connections and data caps. But as schools and districts draw on already-stretched resources to provision Chromebooks and hotspots for students at home, little funding is left for the software services and communication tools that are equally vital to learning.

Pew Survey: Home broadband use by age
Source: Pew Research Center

Companies like ours are currently experiencing unprecedented demand. We provide a service that allows educators to communicate with students and their families on any cell phone, even if they don’t have smartphones or internet access. But despite regularly supporting tens of millions of users and billions of messages, nothing could have prepared us for the volume of traffic that flooded our platform when schools started closing this year.

In mid-March, daily signups surged and messaging skyrocketed to more than double our highest volumes reached during the back-to-school season in 2019; by the end of the month, it was clear that this level of usage was our new baseline. Now, two months later, we’re continuing to deliver nearly 100 million messages every day as teachers provide instruction, share resources and offer reassurance to students and their families.

Yes, Remind offers a free basic service to everyone. But when schools and districts are redesigning programs and sharing contingency plans, they need more than the basic service. What we witnessed was that organizations that had already invested in communications tools were better able to navigate the transition to distance learning. Although a significant number of organizations have been able to upgrade their tools, the option still remains out of reach for far too many schools and districts that lack the funding to pay for services.

We’re proud of how Remind and other companies have been able to support educators and families across the country during this crisis, but we can’t close an accessibility gap of this magnitude on our own. Neither can teachers, schools or districts, when resources are already being stretched to their limits. Without government funding specifically earmarked for the services and tools essential to communicating, this shortfall will hurt students—and put the biggest burden on those who were already struggling before COVID-19.

Previous estimates peg the total shortfall for K-12 education to be at least $200 billion. This funding is critical to support both the teachers and learning services needed for whatever format schools and districts take when they resume instruction in the upcoming academic year. But in this moment, with a return to normalcy still very far away, action needs to be taken before the digital divide becomes a chasm that sets back an entire generation of students.

On behalf of the 30 million educators, students and parents we serve at Remind, we ask that everyone reach out to Senator McConnell and Speaker Pelosi to voice your support for federal funding that will support communication services for K-12 public education during this pandemic and beyond.

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