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Opinion: Digital access is the new frontier in K-12 equity

Chris Wigent and Tonya Allen

With the news that our state’s K–12 schools will no longer be face to face for the remainder of the academic year, Michigan educators are poised to begin a new way of delivering quality learning opportunities to students.

This is important work as we protect families now, and as we build a more robust digital education infrastructure for the future. And it requires us to ensure each and every Michigan student has access to 21st-century learning tools.

According to NCES, 39% of students across the U.S. lacked access to the internet in their homes in 2015, which puts them at a very real disadvantage in today’s world. The majority of these students (26%) were living below the poverty line, while other factors, like race and geographic location, also were significant factors.

Hallways sit empty inside Renaissance High School in Detroit on April 2. Due to the coronavirus, all Michigan public schools were closed for the year by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Here in Michigan, the issue is pronounced. According to Business Leaders for Michigan, our state ranks 28th when it comes to the percentage of households with quality internet service. The Michigan Department of Education estimates that 1 out of every 3 students, a total of 500,000 students, do not have home internet access and/or an electronic learning device. These ratios are even more dire in communities that have high concentrations of poverty or are in rural isolation.

This is the most significant learning equity and social justice issue for students in our time. In Michigan, we must aim to achieve a 1:1 electronic learning device ratio for each and every one of our students, coupled with broadband internet access for every home in our state’s 83 counties.

Consider the consequences of our failure to act. Students typically lose 20–50% of their learning during a three-month summer vacation, according to NWEA. Now imagine that break extended by as much as double the time — this learning loss could be as much as a year, while their more affluent peers are still moving forward in their learning.

We cannot afford to delay. Our Launch Michigan steering committee members — and the tens of thousands of educators, business leaders, and philanthropists they represent — are all-in to provide the necessary support at a time when all-hands-on-deck are urgently needed.

The governor deserves credit for the smart and practical approach she is taking to this matter. We believe the governor’s order to close Michigan schools is an important step forward for all of us — not just in terms of protecting public health, but in challenging our K–12 educators to resolve this important digital divide and bring quality online learning programs to scale.

Moreover, we believe Michigan parents are ready for solutions that help bring teachers back into the lives of their children. If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is about the valuable role our state’s professional educators play in keeping our students learning and directed toward a brighter future. There is a reason why many of us don’t homeschool our youngsters and, in many cases, parents are newly rediscovering it.

This pandemic should elevate for us all that we can no longer let the inequities in Michigan’s education system linger and persist. Having made the call for education equity — and now technological equity for all students — Launch Michigan will help lead the charge. Our K–12 education members will be designing programs and accommodating the needs of their students, no matter what zip code they live in and what they may be facing. Our business and philanthropic members will be working in local communities across Michigan, providing financial and practical support where they are able.

These are unusual times. This is our state’s moment to bring our best efforts to the educational challenge that now lies before us, so we can have an immediate, positive and long-lasting impact on the educational opportunities available to all Michigan students.

Chris Wigent is executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. Tonya Allen is president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation. Learn more about Launch Michigan and its phase one policy recommendations at