The Boyertown Area Times

Connectivi­ty key to children’s futures

- By Rep. Joe Ciresi Joe Ciresi represents parts of Montgomery County in the Pennsylvan­ia House of Representa­tives, serving on the Education, Commerce, Gaming Oversight and Tourism and Recreation­al Developmen­t Committees.

Having served 12 years on the Spring-Ford Area School Board — and finishing my fourth year as state representa­tive serving on the House Education Committee — parents keep asking me anxiously: “How can we give our kids the skills to work with computers, not be replaced by them?”

There are no easy answers for how to give all our kids a fair shot in a rapidly changing economy. But as a starting point, preparing kids for this digital future means ensuring every family has a high-speed broadband connection — and the digital competence to know how to use it.

I’m proud that Governor Wolf’s Broadband Developmen­t Authority is working to bring broadband to even the most isolated rural areas of our state, leveraging at least $100 million in federal infrastruc­ture funds on top of the billions in private investment that have already built out networks to 96% of homes. Now that we’re wiring every community, we need to follow the roadmap for promoting universal connectivi­ty and digital literacy.

In Montgomery County, for example, 97% of households have wired internet service available, but almost 50,000 residents don’t actually subscribe. Because we all have a stake in our fellow citizens’ success, we should help every family get connected to the internet, with the confidence and competence to make the most of it. With so many parts of our society moving increasing­ly online — including many jobs, businesses, and services — it’s important that nobody be left behind and everyone has the chance to participat­e.

Fortunatel­y, President Biden’s bipartisan infrastruc­ture program provides free internet for families in need through the Affordable Connectivi­ty Program. As many as 1,957,000 households in Pennsylvan­ia are eligible — but so far, just over 500,000 of these families have enrolled. That leaves many Montgomery County residents, especially in areas in Royersford and Pottstown with poverty rates exceeding the national average, who could still benefit from this important program. We need an all-of-government, communityw­ide campaign to help these households sign up for free broadband.

Our digital divide isn’t just between those with and without broadband. It’s also between the skills and attitudes American bring to digital challenges — and the know-how and can-do we need. By 2030 — only eight years from now — workers of all ages are going to need digital skills to qualify for 90% of all jobs in the United States. Moreover, according to the National Skills Coalition’s research, almost one-third of American workers have few or no digital skills.

We can’t afford to waste the untapped talent in our communitie­s, or risk leaving our kids unprepared for the digital future. As McKinsey estimates, COVID-19 accelerate­d expected digital transition­s in our workplaces by seven years.

But even as our economy changes, our state Department of Labor and Industry warns, “Pennsylvan­ia is among the states with the lowest levels of digital literacy and connectivi­ty.” Underlying this crisis, we have some of the nation’s greatest education opportunit­y gaps, making it more difficult to teach the Twenty-First Century triad of basic literacy, numeracy and digital fluency.

These warning bells are a call to action, and Pennsylvan­ians from every walk of life — educators, business people, civic and community leaders — should answer the alarm together. School systems must infuse their curricula with more digital skills training to supplement reading, writing and math. Schools can also evangelize to students’ parents the importance of home internet access for homework and enrichment — and can help more eligible families learn about and enroll in the Affordable Connectivi­ty Program.

Pennsylvan­ia will also soon receive an influx of funding from the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act to invest in these kinds of digital inclusion programs. We should work to build out models that have succeeded, in Philadelph­ia and nationally, by training community-based, computersa­vvy mentors to help families sign up for broadband service and navigate the internet.

Modernizin­g our educationa­l system for the digital age is a long-term challenge. It starts with making sure every family has equal access to the basic tools and building blocks. Let’s answer the call to action while we still have the time to prepare every student across Pennsylvan­ia for life in the Informatio­n Age.

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