Getting Connected: Municipal networks could prove key to fixing the digital divide across the United States.

AuthorRosen, David

It's mid-afternoon on a weekday amid the deepening COVID-19 pandemic. A school bus arrives at Cyliss Castillo's home on the Navajo Nation reservation in Cuba, New Mexico. The bus driver, Kelly Maestas, chats with eighteen-year-old Castillo, gives him a bag of food, and collects his school assignments. Then he sets off for another home.

Castillo, like many others living on tribal land, doesn't have electricity. Where he lives, Internet service is unavailable or prohibitively expensive. His school issued him a laptop but he has difficulty charging it. He must use a car battery or go to a relative's house.

One of Castillo's fellow students sends her laptop on the bus to be charged at school. Some ask for paper assignment packets because of how hard it is for them to use computers.

"Hopefully by next semester we'll be going back into school," Castillo says. "I don't like online. I like to be, you know, in school, learning."

Digital inequality is rampant throughout the nation. It is most pronounced in rural communities and in Native American households, as well as in many inner-city Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

"The digital divide existed before the pandemic," says Mara Tieken, an associate professor of education at Maine's Bates College. "We knew about it, and we didn't do anything about it. What happened during the pandemic horrified us but shouldn't have surprised anyone."

Tieken, the author of Why Rural Schools Matter, tells The Progressive that "rural schools were open for face-to-face learning during the pandemic at a greater rate than urban schools. Rural districts knew that if they were not open for face-to-face learning, a lot of their kids would have no access."

Rural schools do have some advantages, Tieken notes: "They are small and can be nimble, and many know their students very well."

In addition to picking up and delivering assignments, many buses in rural communities are outfitted with Wi-Fi for wireless connections; after school, some buses park in an area where local parents can bring their kids for Internet access. As Tieken says, "school buses are literally a lifeline."

The U.S. Census classifies "rural" places as those with less than 2,500 residents. About 20 percent of rural residents in the United States are people of color, about 10.3 million people, consisting of about 40 percent Black, 35 percent Latinx, and the remaining 25 percent Native American, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, or multiracial.

In the decade from...

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