A year ago, we closed our schools to keep students safe. It was the right thing to do, but sending students home exposed the deep inequality that still exists in the Massachusetts education system.

A year into the pandemic, we still have students who lack a laptop or a stable WiFi connection to participate in virtual learning, on top of having to deal with the financial, emotional and physical toll of this pandemic. The result? Thousands of students are set back in their academic journeys.

Even though many students are expected to return to the classroom in just a few short weeks, broadband access will continue to be critical to their success. State legislators need to act quickly if we are to reverse the harm created during COVID-19.

Luckily we’re already on track to implement serious changes to our school system to solve these pressing issues.

Last session, the Legislature and governor established the Broadband Equity Commission to review the impacts of the digital divide across the commonwealth.

Broadband access is something many of us take for granted. Think about the last time your internet service went out. I’m guessing your work came to a halt. Perhaps you huffed and puffed as you tried to troubleshoot your router.

Now imagine you’re in school and your service is so slow that you can’t understand what your teacher is saying because the connection is faulty. You can’t understand when your next assignment is due or what will be on the next test.

That is the unfortunate reality facing far too many Latino students in Massachusetts. And unfortunately the question will not just be about whether or not students have reliable connectivity, it will also be how much that connectivity will cost them.

There is a new proposal by internet service providers to institute data limits to broadband connections. Yes, in the middle of a pandemic, when everyone relies on the internet to essentially survive.

Data caps would set up tiered pricing options for families to use more data for more money. This sets up students for failure and gives an unfair advantage to those who can afford high-speed internet and increased data usage.

State legislators need to intervene and pass the data caps legislation put forth by state Reps. Andy Vargas and David Rogers to offset the damage these data caps will have on students.

State legislators need to invest in our teachers, too, who play a critical role as mentors and educators to students, and as collaborators with families.

But it’s important that educators know how to serve all families, particularly those facing unique challenges.

In some of our most diverse school districts in Massachusetts, like Lawrence and Haverhill, Latino students make up 93% and 40% of the student population, respectively, but Latino educators only account for 11.3% and 3% of their teacher workforces.

As a School Committee member in Salem, Mass., I often reflect upon my own experience as a student in the Salem public schools. The few Latinx educators I had were instrumental in affirming my culture, language and identity in the classroom. Because of them, I was able to succeed, and since then it’s become clear that student outcomes improve when they feel seen and represented by their educators.

Therefore, I know, much like the research tells us, that we need teachers who look like our students, come from their same neighborhoods, and speak the same languages as them because representation matters.

Recently the chairs of the Joint Committee on Education, Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, introduced legislation to do just that. The Educator Diversity Act, if approved, will allow us to recruit and retain diverse talent in Massachusetts.

One feature of this bill is that it would create new pathways for teachers to become licensed educators by providing alternative, yet equivalent, credentials that would be reviewed and approved by the Massachusetts Department of Education.

This bill will also provide data transparency on hiring practices and retention in Massachusetts, enabling us to examine whether we’re meeting our goals of having educators who reflect the diversity of the population they serve.

By setting up an infrastructure to recruit a diverse staff, we’re committing to the success of our students by giving them the representation they need to succeed.

Massachusetts’ post-COVID-19 education system cannot replicate the same policies that have created inequality and gaps in opportunity for Latino students.

At Latinos for Education, we are committed to creating an equitable ecosystem that levels the playing field for our students of color and sets all students up for success.

We’re counting on our state legislators to deliver on that promise of opportunity. 

Manny Cruz is advocacy director for Latinos for Education and a member of the Salem, Mass., School Committee.

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