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Tennessee’s Broadband Problem: Facing a 21st-century challenge with 20th-century technology

Friday, October 30, 2020 | 01:54pm

By Larry Jensen, State Board Member for the Eighth Congressional District

Some problems are harder to solve than others. We recognize them and talk about them, yet they linger - because finding solutions to complex and expensive problems can be a daunting task amidst countless urgent demands that draw focus elsewhere. But once an overwhelming amount of pressure and stress is placed on a growing challenge, it must be reckoned with.

This is the situation we find ourselves in today regarding broadband access in Tennessee.

The challenge is clear. Nearly 500,000 Tennesseeans lack high-speed broadband internet access in their homes. Now, a global pandemic has put a spotlight on our state’s broadband access problem and magnified the dire consequences of letting this problem sit unanswered for too long.

When schools are closed and classes shift to virtual learning, hundreds of thousands of Tennessee students are left without the proper access and resources to receive a basic education.

As the representative for the Eighth Congressional District on the State Board of Education, I began reaching out to superintendents and school leaders in my district to find out how we can best serve students, families and educators through these unprecedented times. Their responses were sobering, but the need for broadband access was clear. Around 50 percent of students in the district I represent, from Henry to Shelby County, do not have adequate access to the internet in their homes.

In the five months since Governor Lee’s initial state of emergency order, more and more school districts have raised the same concerns about internet access. While we clearly needed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our schools, how can we expect students to learn from home virtually without the proper tools?

Broadband access is no longer a privilege; it is a basic need and requirement as part of our evolving society and educational systems.

As our schools have reopened for the 2020-21 school year, some districts have chosen to open in-person, some are operating in a hybrid model and others have chosen to remain fully virtual at this time.

Our State Board of Education passed an emergency rule this summer requiring districts to develop continuous learning plans (CLPs) to ensure we were supporting students. The CLPs will help districts and schools navigate learning models throughout the academic year as needed to protect students and staff from the spread of the novel coronavirus. But without broadband accessibility, we can expect significant learning loss.

Home access to reliable high-speed broadband internet is now a fundamental requirement for students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

While our rural areas are most likely to lack high-speed internet access, even urban and suburban communities are experiencing connectivity gaps - some due to coverage gaps by service providers and others due to a lack of affordability or other barriers of service.

This broadband access impacts more than just our students. Consider the advancements made in telehealth services in just the past few months or the shift in many workplaces to remote working opportunities, many of which will continue far beyond our current health crisis. If our broadband challenge is left unaddressed, Tennessee could witness dramatic declines in health and economic opportunities - among many other consequences.

Now more than ever, urgent action from our federal policymakers is critical to getting broadband into our communities. I encourage Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Marsha Blackburn to continue their push to expand broadband access and find urgent solutions for our students and for all Tennesseeans.

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Mr. Larry Jensen is the District Eight representative on the Tennessee State Board of Education. He is also the Chairman and Principal of Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Advisors Partners, where he advises and represents corporations, institutions and individuals with innovative strategies, planning, and implementation related to business and commercial real estate. Outside of his role with the State Board and his career, Jensen has served on the Board of Visitors for the University of Memphis and the Board of Advisors for the University of Memphis Fogelman College of Business. Jensen serves on the National Board of Directors for Ducks Unlimited, as a trustee of the Governor’s Books from Birth for Tennessee and a trustee for Committee for Economic Development, serving as co-chair of the Education Committee.