With Kentucky’s two largest public schools districts set to start the school year virtually, and many more planning to offer some form of online instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic, internet access advocates are warning of widening student achievement gaps.

“Unfortunately, due to differences in connectivity … we face the challenge of an even widening technology gap, a potential widening of the achievement gap. It’s no secret, that across our country, we have had significant differences in the learning opportunities between kids who have and kids who have not,” said Wayne Lewis, Kentucky’s former education commissioner and currently the inaugural dean of Belmont University’s School of Education.

Lewis spoke during a press briefing Monday. He was joined by Republican state Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, and President Peter Hille of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

“When we think about technology gaps, the reality is that many of the kids who have traditionally been underserved are kids who lack access to technology, who lack access to the web,” said Lewis, who pointed to Kentucky’s Appalachian counties as one example. “These are kids that, for many generations in some cases, have struggled to get access to the same type of learning and resources that kids in Lexington or in Louisville have had access to.”

Wise witnessed the digital divide first-hand in his own district this spring when many schools pivoted almost overnight to remote learning. Wise’s district encompasses much of southern Kentucky, including Adair, Clinton, Cumberland McCreary, Russell, Taylor and Wayne counties.

“The problem that we faced with that lack of internet accessibility and connectivity for so many families, many of them were having to travel to fast-food restaurants in their towns that they live in to be able to get to Wi-Fi spots,” Wise said.

Wise estimated that, across his legislative district, about 80% of his constituents have internet access, but he acknowledged the gaps are even more pronounced in places like eastern Kentucky. U.S. Census Bureau estimates have put the percentage of Kentucky households with broadband internet at about 75%.

The problem centers on both infrastructure and economic barriers to internet connectivity, Hille said. Simply having infrastructure available won’t solve the internet access problem, he said.

“As we look at solving this problem, we’ve got to ask: ‘How do we turn that on? If the access is there, how do we make that accessible to every household that’s got the wire running to the house?’ ” Hille said, adding that the Mountain Associate has pushed internet service providers to turn on the service for users.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Hille said policymakers will need to go beyond the scope of Kentucky Wired, a project he said would only extend high-speed broadband to a county’s seat, not every last mile, if realized. If may require a New Deal-sized approach, he said.

“The reason that we have electricity to every home and every holler in east Kentucky is because of the Rural Electrification program as part of the New Deal,” he said. “We need a New Deal for eastern Kentucky that’s going to support getting these services that are essential services out to the last mile.”

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

Education reporter. Covers education and related issues, focusing primarily on the Bowling Green and Warren County public school districts and Western Kentucky University.

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