Let me paint a picture for you: Your kids or somebody else’s kids are “social distanced” away from school for what could be the longest type of spring break in history.

The school principal reassures parents that they’ll migrate over to a virtual education model.

Problem mostly solved, yes? After all, 81% of Americans have smartphones and even some Hawaii bus stops are equipped with free WiFi.

As Civil Beat contributor and University of Hawaii professor for 40 years, Neal Milner, asserted last week in “The Dual Dangers Of Intimacy And Isolation In A Pandemic,” “Social media is revolutionizing the way we deal with a pandemic like coronavirus.”

It is. But who’s slipping through the cracks? That is, which students and teachers are left wired-less?

This question was put to a hui of tech community folks, hastily convened — via videoconference of course — by my organization, Transform Hawaii Government, and our friends at the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii.

A computer mouse and keyboard are useless without WiFi. Flickr: Jamie

In a heartening show of heightened interest and solidarity, government officials, educators, telecom companies, a houseless encampment rep, PR firms and nonprofits, all put their heads together to survey the lay of our islands’ digital connectivity.

Our shared objective: improving internet access to bridge the digital divide between teacher and student as we wait out the global pandemic.

We addressed three factors:

  1. Hawaii schools’ ability to deploy virtual education;
  2. potential loss of telecom service due to economic hardship; and
  3. broadband “deserts” in rural areas.

This may come as a surprise, but not only do untold students lack computer gear and internet at home, so do many teachers. Given this reality, the Hawaii public school superintendent is now tenaciously working to identify which pupils and faculty need help — and design contingency plans for them.

We tend to focus on public schools in Hawaii education policy-shaping since these students account for about 80% of the total pie (10% fewer than the national average) but what about private schools?

We’ve learned from the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools that while most large private schools have the connectivity, hardware and software required for online classes, some smaller private schools may not.

Help For Rural Areas

One bright spot is that Hawaii’s telecom leaders are working together with the Department of Education and families in need across the archipelago to get them internet, sometimes at no cost, bringing me to the second pressing factor:

Maybe you’ve heard about the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge recently signed by telecom providers all over the country? Companies — including Hawaiian Telcom and Spectrum — have now pledged to:

  • Not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;
  • Waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
  • Open WiFi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Many internet providers in Hawaii are also reassuring parents of students who lack means that customer service will work with them to find solutions. The Charter-Spectrum offer can be reached here. For Hawaiian Telcom’s program for households with K-12 and/or college students who currently do not subscribe to Hawaiian Telcom, families can call 808-643-8888 for more information

To be precise, we’re talking about students and teachers who are currently without internet. In this regard, “Keep Americans Connected” is a home run.

A harder curve ball to hit is getting internet access to the farthest reaches of our islands in short order. Like Rome, that kind of infrastructure can’t be built in a day.

Google, though, is giving laptops (Chromebooks) and free WiFi (in buses with hotspots) to rural students in what they call “Rolling Study Halls,” in 11 states from Oregon to South Carolina.

Teachers out in the countryside are exploring workable remedies.

The Federal Communication Commission reports that 80% of Americans in rural areas don’t have high-speed internet that works consistently and is affordable. This applies to our state too.

Teachers out in the countryside are exploring workable remedies. Rural and homeless students living in broadband deserts can benefit from creative solutions like meeting in small groups in big spaces or in local community centers equipped with high speed internet.

I won’t dive into the hundreds of other online tools like tele-health and government services that high speed internet brings to the homebound, but first-things-first: let’s get students into the online classroom during this crisis.

What was once a nice-to-have is today a must-get for our students and teachers.

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