Lack of internet access widens Pa. digital divide; House Democratic Policy Committee focuses on needs and solutions

HARRISBURG, March 30 – The House Democratic Policy Committee today hosted a virtual public hearing that challenged public officials to reimagine the education system to ensure quality, reliable internet access and equipment for students as part of an educators’ toolbox.

The hearing, hosted by state Representatives Jordan Harris, Pam Snyder, Peter Schweyer, Morgan Cephas, brought together educators and communications experts on what is needed to help create a bridge that closes the digital divide.

“Ultimately, a public-private partnership and investment will be needed to overcome the digital divide. Quality internet access and devices are an essential part of a quality 21st century education and Pennsylvania students and educators should be set up for success,” Policy Chairman Ryan Bizzarro said. 

Hillary Linardopoulos, legislative representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers; Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Prep; and Dr. Robin Cooper from the Philadelphia Principals Union, shared their experience throughout the pandemic and the challenges their educators faced before and throughout the pandemic in keeping children and educators connected for a quality education. Cooper noted broadband access and educational supports have a direct impact on student opportunities and career potential.

“At the start of the pandemic, there were about 3,000 Allentown School District households that didn’t have access to the internet,” said Schweyer. “This isn’t a failing of the school district but rather a failure of our society to recognize that access to the internet in the 21st Century is a basic human need. From education to health care to employment to grocery shopping, reliable and affordable high-speed internet is a necessity.”

Dr. Lucretia Brown, deputy superintendent for Equity, Accountability and School Improvement with the Allentown School District; and Rebecca Bodnar, principal of Central Elementary School at the Allentown School District, highlighted the impact access to reliable internet and devices has had on their district, which represents high numbers of Black and Hispanic students. 

“The current pandemic has shown us how imperative it is that we all are connected with reliable broadband access – whether we’re a student, a business owner, a farmer, or a health care provider. Having affordable, accessible internet access is vital to our communities large and small,” said Snyder, D-Greene/Fayette/Washington. “We had a very productive discussion during today’s hearing, and I’m confident that my colleagues and I can move forward on our efforts to bridge the current digital divide.”

Taylor Burnfield, a student from Jefferson-Morgan High School, shared the great lengths taken throughout the past year to overcome her own personal access struggles and her dedication to keeping her grades up despite those challenges. 

John Callahan, chief advocacy officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association; Dr. Erich May, superintendent of the Brookville Area School District; Mrs. Amy Arcurio, superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District; and Todd Beatty, superintendent of the Northern Bedford County School District, echoed sentiments regarding improving access and addressing inequities to provide students and teachers the resources for economic opportunities for the future.

Cephas said: “I’m hopeful that we can find some solutions in this forum to help students and parents with access to technology and broadband service, especially in our urban areas like West Philadelphia where so many young people have needed to learn remotely for the last year and continue to do so. The need is so great in these areas and our children are falling behind. We owe it to them to find answers that will foster their growth and allow them to flourish in society.”

Joseph Schlingbaum, attorney adviser from the Federal Communications Commission, shared emergency connectivity funding efforts to keep schools and libraries connected via equipment and services. Pennsylvania Department of Education testifiers included Glenn Miller, deputy secretary and commissioner for libraries, and Judd Pittman, special consultant to the secretary of Education for STEM. Both commended schools for their approaches to using pandemic funding to swiftly create sound strategies to address student needs.

Hearing testimony and video can be found by clicking here.