Murkowski Discusses Concern for and Seeks Solutions to Support Students During and After Pandemic

As Congress continues their work to help America overcome the challenges of COVID-19, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) took part in a virtual Senate HELP Committee hearing this week focused on going back to school safely. The hearing delved into not only the question of how schools will reopen, but also measures to ensure they are able to do so safely and with greater equity so that all students receive the academic as well as technological, health, and social-emotional support they need to succeed. Additional issues, such as addressing the needs of homeless students that have only been made more acute during the pandemic, were also discussed. 

The hearing included school leaders from across the country who are working to help students get back to school safely in the fall: Dr. Penny Schwinn, Commissioner of Education at the Tennessee Department of Education; Dr. Matthew Blomstedt, Commissioner of Education at the Nebraska Department of Education; and Susana Cordova, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, as well as Dr. John B. King, Jr., President/CEO of the Education Trust.

CLICK HERE for video from the hearing. 

During the hearing, Senator Murkowski directed a question to John King, Jr., about the success of continuing education during the pandemic, specifically in regard to students’ ability to have access to technology to create a virtual learning environment.

“Well in my state and many rural states, internet is spotty at best. And we can give the kids as many laptops as they want, but if it doesn’t connect, it doesn’t get them anywhere,” said Senator Murkowski. “We know that E-rate is what provides support to our school districts in so many rural areas. But when schools close, and the E-rate program is limited to providing internet at the school, kids can’t get access after that. They don’t have the connectivity that they need.”

After noting her worries for kids who are going to need assistance from school nurses and counselors, and those who are homeless, and English learners, one of her questions dove into how to ensure kids lacking internet connectivity are not left out if we are in a truncated school week or year, so much has relied on how students are able to access the internet to connect with their teachers.

“What we’re told is that without changes to statute, they [FCC] cannot provide support for tele-education into student’s homes. And this is really problematic for us in Alaska. I’m sure this is not the only problem that our schools are dealing with – some are getting really creative, literally putting a dish up on top of the school buildings,” said Murkowski. “We know that we have seen great support from many of our telecom providers providing free internet to families during this initial COVID launch, but will they be there to provide that support in the fall if this is indefinite?”

Dr. King replied, “I think that there is an important role for the FCC to play here with internet providers to try to make it as simple as possible for folks to access internet services and ideally to make it possible for school districts to make bulk purchases of internet services for families. I think about the Cleveland School District which has committed over the next few years to work with their internet service providers to ensure that every household in Cleveland has access to internet service. And from the school district’s standpoint, it’s a question of protecting kid’s access to distance learning. It’s closing the homework gap so students can use the internet—even if we’re past COVID-19 to do their homework—but also today the internet is foundational for accessing post-secondary opportunities, to accessing job opportunities.  And so we do need, I think you are exactly right, a comprehensive solution here, and long-term particularly for our rural areas that may need also an infrastructure investment.”

Additionally, Murkowski asked Ms. Cordova, Superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, for further discussion related to the homelessness issue and the emergency needs that families and youth are facing in the wake of COVID-19 and how community partners inside and outside the schools can help stabilize these children and youth.  Noting that she had just today introduced S.3923, the Emergency Family Stabilization Act to help community-based organizations assist homeless youth and families, Murkowski spoke to her concern about the gap of services for homeless kids and families.