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Needed Now: Federal Help for Students’ Disrupted Lives

School closures are worsening the digital divide and depriving students of mental health services. With state and local resources strained, Washington's financial support can address the widening gaps.

Ethan, 5, practices his letters while participating in his kindergarten class remotely in the kitchen of his Chicago home. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Across our country, public-school students' lives and school years continue to be disrupted by COVID-19. With schools shut down or operating at reduced capacity, too many students have lost access to services and supports provided during the school day, such as high-speed Internet and counseling.

As students and families continue to endure the pandemic, we need federal leadership to attend to widening gaps in students' access to broadband, technology and mental health care to ensure that they are able to learn now and into the future. The nation's children and youth need Congress and the president to be part of the solution by committing to provide financial support to address these essential services. There is little time to waste, as we see reports of gaps widening most for low-income students.

We are from different political parties, but we know that supporting education is an investment in the future of our country that transcends party lines. As governors, we worked to stem education crises in our states by stepping up to provide funds for schools and supporting students through their academic and social challenges; to improve the lives of Appalachian children who too often lack access to the Internet and mental health counseling; and to close the general digital divide that continues to plague our education system. With state and local resources strained by the impact of business shutdowns on tax revenues, enhanced federal support is desperately needed.

First, aid is needed to close the digital divide by ensuring that affordable high-speed Internet and devices are available to every student so that they have access to learning both during and after this pandemic. Across the country, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million people — six percent of the population — lack home access to broadband Internet service, but some estimate that the real number may be twice as high. It is clear that lack of broadband access is a major issue in rural areas, but it is also found in our cities and suburbs.

Even before the pandemic, 17 percent of students were unable to finish their homework because of the digital divide. Millions of students still lack the requisite broadband access to fully participate in remote learning, and there's no clear end in sight. Just as national infrastructure projects in the past have propelled our country forward, it is critical that federal leaders provide the funding needed to close the country's digital divide.

Second, more support is needed to attend to students' social and emotional well-being. Trained adults who can support struggling children are needed now more than ever. The pandemic may cause more children to feel isolated or lonely, resulting in an increased stress level; indeed, surveys have found that students' anxieties and depression have increased during the current school closures.

Before those closures occurred, only one of five students were receiving the care they needed. The national student-to-counselor ratio of 482 to 1 was unmanageable before the pandemic impacted students' mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has supported training staff to recognize early warning signs, but there is a need for more trained clinical counselors in schools to identify psychological issues and create a positive school climate that enables learning to happen.

Schools and states are at a critical juncture, in the midst of another uncertain school year. For our leaders in the federal government, now is the time to provide financial support as this pandemic continues to widen gaps that will impact students for years, if not decades, to come.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Former governor of Ohio
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