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Commentary: Pandemic shows SC needs comprehensive approach on broadband

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Eddie Ingram

Eddie Ingram

COVID-19 began with a bang: It forced schools into remote learning in a matter of days. Across the state, there were concerns about accessibility to online resources, especially for those in rural areas, but the Berkeley County School District was prepared.

From equipping our school buses with Wi-Fi, to providing students with Chromebooks, to partnerships with internet providers that brought Wi-Fi directly to students’ homes, Berkeley County has been at the forefront of closing the internet accessibility gap for rural students.

With the help of community partnerships, our students have, and will continue to have, an equal opportunity to succeed academically, be it in the classroom or via distance learning.

Our efforts were largely made possible by partnering with Google, which has a data center in our community. In addition to helping us turn school buses into “rolling hot spots,” Google partnered with HomeTelecom and provided a grant to make broadband access possible for 300 homes with school-age children, covering an area where roughly 25% of homes did not have any service, and only 52% of homes with school-age children had internet service.

COVID-19 has impacted all of our lives, but it’s more important than ever to maintain consistency in our students’ learning. Our children are the next generation of doctors and scientists, lawyers and engineers. Internet accessibility cannot be what holds them back.

The conversation on broadband has gone on long enough, and the time for action is now.

As South Carolina looks to develop a comprehensive approach to rural broadband, the increased opportunities for both school-age children and their parents could be monumental.

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Already in Berkeley County, collaboration with corporate partners such as Google has allowed us to quickly and effectively create short-term solutions. We’re proud to be a case study for success through collaboration.

Our legislators have taken the first step, from allocating $50 million in CARES Act funds to the unveiling of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s $100 billion nationwide broadband bill.

But here at home, we cannot afford to attack this issue without using every tool available. Community and corporate partnerships could be the key to closing the gap between lip service and action.

Our fellow South Carolinians — neighbors, co-workers, classmates, friends — are shouldering the burden of this struggle. We can no longer count on spaces like schools, libraries, offices or community centers to be someone’s sole point of access to the internet.

Increasing rural broadband accessibility must be made a priority in order to keep all South Carolinians, especially our students, from getting left behind.

Eddie Ingram is superintendent of the Berkeley County School District.

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