We need to address the digital divide causing an educational crisis

Austinville Elementary third grade teacher Emily Williams helps her daughter Lily, 3, as her two sons Braden, 10, bottom left, and Landen, 8, complete virtual school assignments in June at their home in Decatur, Alabama.

Stefanie Sanford is chief of global public policy and external relations for the College Board, and Larry Irving is a former US assistant secretary of commerce during the Clinton Administration and a member of the Internet Hall of Fame.

(CNN)Millions of American students won't be heading back to the classroom this fall, at least not full time. From Los Angeles to New York, remote learning will continue into the fall.

That leaves a staggering number of students at risk of falling behind or dropping out. Up to 30% of schoolchildren — as many as 16 million American kids — lack internet access or laptops for online learning, a study by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group warned.
This isn't just a problem for this fall. Missing months of learning will have catastrophic effects down the line. Students who have lost foundational skills will have trouble keeping up when school finally resumes, and they'll be at greater risk of being held back, dropping out or failing to enroll in college.
    The digital divide has been with us for decades, and we're not going to solve it by August. But there is a tremendous amount we can do, right now, to save a generation of students from years of struggle. 

    Make it free

    Minh Nguyen, a technology services worker with the Tacoma School District, cleans laptops to distribute to students in April.
    Millions of Americans can't access broadband at any price because it's not available where they live. Millions more simply can't afford it, and that's a problem we can solve quickly. In the next round of coronavirus relief legislation, Congress should fund wireless "hotspot" distribution by public schools and libraries. Lawmakers should also offer subsidies or vouchers for commercial internet service and require providers to honor them.
    The same approach can work for laptops. Back when broadcast television switched from analog to digital signals, the Commerce Department distributed millions of vouchers for converter boxes. People took them to the store and walked out with the technology they needed. Surely, we could manage something similar on behalf of the nation's schoolchildren.
    We urge Congress to provide up to $6 billion for students and $1 billion for educators in the next round of coronavirus relief for broadband service and hardware, targeted to households that already qualify for other forms of federal assistance.

    Make it a fast connection

    Jordan, 9, works on his laptop in his bedroom  during distance learning in Broward County, Florida.
    Streaming classes, interactive coursework and other byte-rich content schools now require will overwhelm many standard data plans.