Jason Shoaf: Fixing Florida’s digital divide

Reading books with an E-book
How can we expect students to learn from home if they can’t log in?

Most of us were unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.

It sent a shockwave around the world disrupting the way we learn, do business and meet basic human needs. While many industries and people adjusted quickly to the new normal, students without internet access and digital devices were left behind.

How can we expect students to learn from home if they can’t log in to class?

This Legislative Session, in partnership with Sen. Dennis Baxley, I proposed legislation to help Florida’s school districts bridge the digital divide to ensure all students have access to internet and devices that are required for virtual learning.

Currently, more than 800,000 students across the Sunshine State don’t have access to broadband internet. More than half a million students don’t have adequate digital devices to use when logging into class, reading online resources or completing their homework.

The consequences are far-reaching. Today, these students are facing challenges in school. What about tomorrow, when they enter the workforce? It will be far more challenging for workers to succeed in a technology-driven economy after missing out on years of skills and training with technology.

The legislation I filed, HB 985, will help perform a statewide inventory of the efforts schools made over the past two years to connect kids and their schools.  This will establish a baseline and understanding of what digital tools their students can access.

The legislation requires school districts to estimate the number of families without access to internet and/or devices so they can assist in closing the gap. In addition, the legislation directs school districts to identify and share strategies that were particularly effective, creating a best practices list for use all over the state.

The bill also directs the Department of Education to coordinate with the State Office of Broadband to assess the optimal ways to deploy federal relief dollars to quickly close the digital divide in identified geographical areas of the greatest need.

Florida’s students are our next generation of workers, teachers and leaders. They need the tools to learn today, and the experience to be successful tomorrow. Let’s “bridge the digital divide” for Florida’s students and pass HB 985 and SB 1016. Let’s give our students the tools they need to succeed.

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Jason Shoaf is a Republican from Port St. Joe serving in his first full term and is vice-chair of the Secondary Education and Career Development Subcommittee.

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