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The need for statewide broadband access has become an even greater priority as the COVID-19 pandemic caused many Missouri schools to rely on virtual or hybrid learning.

State Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, emphasized the need to get serious about the issue during a House committee hearing earlier this year.

"Access to the internet should be seen as a utility," she said. "The opportunity gap won't break if this doesn't happen."

One of the schools in her district, Independence, experienced a lack of internet access and adequate equipment for online schooling. There are areas with proper internet access but families have to subscribe to the service and that cost can make access even more difficult, she said.

She finds it alarming there are areas of the state without any broadband access.

"It should be considered part of our infrastructure. And not just during the pandemic, but beyond," she said.

On Aug. 11, Gov. Mike Parson announced 16 broadband projects from eight providers would receive more than $3 million through a new emergency program.

"Expanding broadband is essential to our state's infrastructure," he said at the time.

The bill established a program through the Department of Economic Development to expand broadband internet access to unserved and underserved parts of Missouri.

However, the need is much greater than any one program can address. One in five students did not have access to online learning opportunities last spring, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's Spring 2020 report. About 30 percent of Missouri's population is classified as rural, making broadband access difficult to spread through the entire state.

Parson said we need broadband access for educational reasons but also economic reasons.

Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, said the broadband access bill is important for not just rural students but also rural farmers, adding to the economic benefit of Parson's broadband initiative.

"That's going to make (farmers) more efficiently farm less fertilizer, less chemicals. Farmers look at that as less input costs," he said.

The pandemic has put this initiative to the forefront, but broadband access in rural areas has always been an issue in Missouri.

Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, was a strong advocate for getting funds allocated at the rural and county level for this issue even before the pandemic began. Seeing first-hand the lack of broadband access in his district made him see how important this initiative was. Last spring, he had parents call him telling him their children were doing homework in school parking lots.

"We're trying to address that gap between where we are and where we should be," Riggs said.

He said the issue of access to broadband echoes the situation in the 1930s, when there needed to be stronger rural electrification. It became a necessity, rather than a luxury.

"Almost 100 years later, we're dealing with this same issue. This is something that we need every day. It's something that our businesses, schools and hospitals need," Riggs said.

One of the most influential impacts of COVID-19 is the effect nationwide school shutdowns have on students.

"COVID-19 has really shone a light on this (broadband access), but this is not going away," Rep. Burnett said.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, has a personal connection with education and broadband access, as he was a chemistry and physics teacher for 34 years. Lewis said schools have needed broadband long before the pandemic.

But while he sees the need for expanded broadband, he does not believe remote learning is a substitute for in-person classes. The interaction, responses and relationships are much less than they would be in person.

"They (the students) need that personal contact and the teachers need personal contact with them for lots of reasons," Lewis said.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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