While access to broadband has been one of several priorities for educators for the last several years, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of access available to many Mississippi students. And now, as schools around the state begin to reopen either virtually or with a hybrid plan that includes at least some virtual learning, it is more apparent than ever that high-speed internet access is no longer optional—it is a modern-day necessity. Today’s economy requires that families and communities have reliable broadband access in order to fully engage.

The Mississippi Department of Education has identified as many as 150,000 students in 60,000 households who are unserved or underserved by any broadband provider. This number represents about 33% of the school-age population.

It is crucial that we increase broadband access so that all of Mississippi’s students have the requisite tools to learn. This digital divide only exacerbates seriously concerning student achievement gaps in our state.

The Mississippi Department of Education and educators statewide are following with interest all of the congressional movement surrounding broadband, including both infrastructure funding and reforming consumer subsidy programs. Our students need additional investments in broadband to ensure that they all have access to online learning. This is not just about broadband, but it’s also an investment in the educational future of Mississippi students, which will lead to a stronger workforce, higher base wage, and better quality of life.

Mississippi’s own U.S. Senator Roger Wicker serves as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and has been a champion for this issue in Congress. He knows that quality education is the most important investment that we can make in the future of Mississippi’s workforce and economy. He also knows that we need to do better for the 150,000 students in Mississippi who don’t have access to virtual learning. The Senate is likely to take up additional COVID-relief and infrastructure bills that include funding for expanding broadband access in the coming weeks, and we are hopeful that it will include further support for broadband infrastructure for Mississippi’s future.

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Submitted by Dr. Jason Dean, chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Education.