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Mass. Officials Reflect on Legislation for Tech in Schools

Visiting Haverhill High School on Monday, Senator Edward Markey, Congresswoman Lori Trahan and other officials discussed the the E-Rate program, American Rescue Plan and other strides toward closing the digital divide.

technology legislation, law
(TNS) — When Senator Edward Markey was going to school, all he needed to compete with other students was the books he took home.

But in the digital era, gaps in access to technology have created divisions that can't be bridged by hard work alone.

"Today, if you don't have Internet access, it's hard to compete because that's where your book bag is, it's inside of that Chromebook, it's inside of those technologies," Markey said.

The senator was at Haverhill High School Monday, along with Congresswoman Lori Trahan and other local officials, to celebrate federal legislation that has provided students with those devices and Internet connections that they need to thrive in school.

Markey first mentioned the E-Rate program that he co-sponsored with bipartisan support in Congress, which went into effect in 1998 and connected schools and libraries to the Internet.

"What I did was, I was able to build in a little, little, little tax on every phone call that's made in America, and that has created a fund of $54 billion, which helps Haverhill to have an Internet connection in this library, in this school, and in the Haverhill Library," he said.

But the pandemic has further exposed the digital divide as an inequity that is suffered by working families, a recognition that led to the inclusion of Emergency Connectivity Funding in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

This program has provided $823,629 to the Haverhill School District, which was used in part to get Chromebooks into the hands of students who couldn't afford one so they could study remotely, said Doug Russell, technology director at Haverhill High School.

He said the money has also allowed Haverhill High to partner with Comcast Xfinity to sponsor Internet connections in homes where families were struggling to make ends meet.

"The final thing we're working on, that we haven't done yet, is we're working on putting wireless access in all our school buses, and that will allow students to use their computers on the way home," Russell said. "It will allow us to provide WiFi access in different communities."

Markey held up himself and Congresswoman Trahan as examples of people whose parents had not gone through college, but who managed to make it through college and well beyond by working hard.

"Ultimately the sky's the limit for everybody who's in this room, and that's what we've tried to do, is we've tried to say, we're going to get you everything you need, and then the sky is the limit," he said.

He credited local leaders, who applied at the earliest opportunity for Emergency Connectivity Funding, with making sure that Haverhill got the support that its schools need.

"Haverhill got per citizen the highest in the whole country," Markey said.

The floor was then opened to questions from a range of Haverhill High School students, some of whom were members of school government, while others were part of the Career Technical Education program. Several were from an AP class on government.

One student wondered how the digital divide would be closed for working families in the future, if the funding from ARPA was a one-time measure.

Markey replied that Congress was still working on the Build Back Better Act, which funds a broad array of programs and is still one vote short of passing in the senate, where he saw another opportunity to help students and schools.

"We're not going back to the old model," he said. "We all know that, and we just have to make sure that the funding is there so that every young person has access to technology."

When another student asked for examples of "the actual things that are preventing people from having equity in school environments," Trahan also invoked the measures in the Build Back Better Act.

"That is not the name of the legislation any more, but for me it's a motto that's very orienting," she said. "Coming out of Covid, we have to take this opportunity to make sure we aren't going back to a normal that wasn't great for everyone. We have to go forward to a place where everybody has access, where equity is built into our education system, to our health care system, to our child care, to our workforce opportunity, housing, transportation, right down the line. These issues all intersect with each other."

©2022 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.