As a member of Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS) at Baltimore City College, Yashira Valenzuela spends most of her time outside of school tackling systemic injustices in the Baltimore city school system.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift to remote learning, Yashira and her fellow SOMOS members began to realize how many Baltimore students lack access to affordable high-speed internet.
Yashira is one of six active members of SOMOS. During the school year, SOMOS has around 20-30 members from all grades. The group, which primarily consists of Latinx students, originated in 2014 to address inequity in high school choice applications for English language learners.
In Baltimore, limited broadband internet access impacts more than 40 percent of residents. According to a survey conducted by the Abell Foundation, around 96,000 households do not have access to broadband internet. In Baltimore City, roughly 20,000 families with children under the age of 17 do not have broadband internet or computers.
Access to broadband internet at home is particularly inadequate for low-income households and communities of color in Baltimore. In Baltimore City, roughly 73.3 percent of white households have broadband, compared with 50.2 percent of black households and 46.4 percent of Hispanic households.
In 2016, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved a 10-year extension of the city’s cable franchise agreement with Comcast. For many Baltimoreans, Comcast’s Internet Essentials package, offered at $9.95 per month, is the only affordable internet option.
But for many Baltimore students, Internet Essentials is not enough. In an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl, Yashira explained that many of her classmates who have Internet Essentials struggled to upload homework assignments and log on for virtual lessons due to the slow connection.
“When schools were in session, many issues weren’t prevalent,” Yashira said, “Food was being provided by schools, internet was already a given due to the fact that at school we had it. Students like me were not worried about anything concerning schools and their internet provider.” During the lockdown, she said, “students are being forced to put the health of themselves and of their families in jeopardy by going to public places to complete their school assignments.”
In April, Yashira and her fellow SOMOS members decided to take action to achieve digital equity. The group began by enlisting the help of Baltimore city government. In response, First District Councilmember Zeke Cohen, one of SOMOS’s early supporters, introduced a bill that would allow city government to provide emergency funding for food access, digital devices, and expanded internet access. The bill, unanimously passed by the City Council, moved $3 million from the Children and Youth Fund toward the purchase of Chrome Books for over 10,000 students across the city.
“I fundamentally believe that we need to start treating the internet as a public utility, and not a private luxury,” Councilmember Cohen told Baltimore Fishbowl. “In this moment of both global pandemic and also this rallying call around Black Lives Matter,” Cohen said, “I find it really troubling that a corporation could turn away from majority black and brown students and ignore their calls to do better.”
As SOMOS and Councilmember Cohen have recognized, lack of high-speed internet access during COVID-19 related school closures will likely exacerbate existing achievement gaps in America’s education system. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center indicated that one in five teens cannot finish their homework due to lack of internet access. For black teens, the percentage was 25, compared with 17 percent of Hispanic teens and 13 percent of white teens. Disparities in home broadband connections, access to computers, and direct instructions from teachers may widen the learning gap for black, Hispanic, and low-income students.
New research suggests that many American students will lose significant academic gains under remote learning conditions and the disparity will grow. According to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company in June, the average student could lose seven months of academic gains, while black and Hispanic students could lose 10 months and nine months, respectively. COVID-19 related school closures may also increase high-school drop-out rates, which are currently higher for black and Hispanic students.
In May, SOMOS called on Comcast directly to address Baltimore’s digital divide. In a letter and press conference, the group made three key demands:
- Increase the upload and download speeds of the Internet Essentials package.
- Make Internet Essentials free for all teachers and students until 60 days after public school students return to classrooms.
- Make Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots free until 60 days after school resumes.
In the months since the press conference, SOMOS has continued the fight for better internet access. On August 3, SOMOS and the Baltimore Teachers Union held a car and bike rally. The rally began in Camden Yards and ended outside the Comcast regional headquarters in South Baltimore.
Yesterday, Comcast announced a series of updates to the Internet Essentials program. The company publicized the release of the Internet Essentials Partnership Program (IEPP), which will allow cities, schools, and nonprofits to connect low-income K-12 students with broadband internet. Comcast also announced that Internet Essentials users will now have free access to the xFi platform, allowing parents to enable and control their children’s Wi-Fi connected devices. Lastly, the company will hold a series of national and regional summits in the fall to focus on the issues of education, broadband adoption, internet safety, and digital and media literacy training.
“For nearly a decade, there has been no company more committed to bridging the digital divide in Baltimore, and across the nation, than Comcast,” said Kristie Fox, Vice President of Communications for Comcast’s Beltway Region, in a statement to Baltimore Fishbowl. To confront the pandemic, Comcast has offered 60 days of free service to any new customers signing up for Internet Essentials, waived all back-due debt, and opened thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots.
“Solving a problem as vast and complex as the digital divide requires collaboration across the city – with the school district, elected officials, nonprofit community partners, and other private-sector companies – so everyone is part of the solution,” Fox said.
Governor Hogan also announced on Thursday $10 million in grant awards to support the expansion of broadband access for education. The grant, provided by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and administered by the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, awarded nearly $8 million to increase internet access for Maryland public school students and $2 million to support feasibility studies and design for a statewide fixed wireless network to expand access for students in rural areas.
Despite the updates, Comcast has yet to meet the exact demands set forth by SOMOS and the Baltimore City Council.
“We have an obligation, all of us, to provide an adequate education for our children and to not ignore when they are crying out for support,” said Councilmember Cohen. To bridge the digital divide, “everyone has to own this issue.”