Everett High School teacher Chad Sanders grabs a computer for a student as part of the school's technology distribution program for online learning on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Lansing. Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC/REUTERS

Millions of struggling Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic could see relief under the HEROES Act proposed by House Democrats. The $3.3 trillion proposal features a $1200 stimulus check per person, along with increased funding for states and businesses, and increased testing for COVID-19.

The HEROES Act includes a moratorium on utility shut offs such as water, electricity, and  internet services. It would also create a $4 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund to expand high speed internet access to those who can’t afford it and provide another $1.5 billion dollars to expand internet access for schools and libraries.

On a national livestream hosted by the Center for Biological Diversity on May 12, Alissa Weinman, Associate Campaign Director of the watchdog group Corporate Accountability, detailed the economic effects of COVID-19.

“22 million in the last month and low-paying jobs in the retail, service and hospitality sectors are being hit the hardest—industries that disproportionately employ people of color,” Weinman said. “As millions of people have been laid off, furloughed, or simply aren’t being scheduled to work, they face the threat of losing access to electricity, water, or broadband services due to an inability to pay their utility bills.”

The legislation, proposed on May 12, is expected to be voted on by the House on May 15. Supporters acknowledge it faces major hurdles in passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

“We really need to push the Senate hard,” Sen. Jeff Merkley said on the livestream. “The Senate leadership doesn’t think about the world through main street America or ordinary families. They think about the world through Wall Street and mega corporations and how you help out the most powerful.”

830 groups signed a joint letter to Congress in support of the mortarium, and have launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #NoShutoff to pressure legislators to retain provisions that protect access to water, power, and broadband.

“It’s more important than ever that Congressional leadership fights hard to keep these provisions in the final bill,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Organizer at Food & Water Action. “It shouldn’t have taken a public health disaster, but we’re eager to see a newfound commitment from our leaders on water and other crucial utilities.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham said Republicans opposed HEROES Act provisions “unrelated” to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, a lack of high speed internet access has emerged as the key obstacle preventing students from low income families in rural and urban communities from participating in online learning during the pandemic. Educators warn the continued lack of access will amplify long standing disparities between the haves and the haves not.

On May 12, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Congress of “unintended deleterious consequences of having children out of school,” and said it was too early to determine if it will be safe to reopen schools in the fall.

The HEROES Act could be especially important in cities like Baltimore, where public policy has created a massive wealth and opportunity gap across racial and class lines. Residents of majority-Black jurisdictions account for the 58% of COVID-19 fatalities nationally, a new study shows.

Over 40% of Baltimore City households lack broadband internet access, and one in three didn’t have access to a computer at home, a May 2020 Abell Foundation report found. Some 200,000 Baltimore households with school-aged children lack access to high speed internet or a computer. Baltimore ranked 29th out of 32 cities in terms of students’ access to technology. Nationally, approximately 4 in 10 low income African American and Latino households lack broadband access, Pew Research found.

“The internet is essential for students,” Baltimore City College High School Senior Aliyah Abid said on the livestream. “Students who have AP exams, people like myself who have projects due this week are taking time away from school to demand these measures are included in the [HEROES Act],” she said.

Abid, a member of the student-led group Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS), said that many students have difficulty completing assignments due to insufficient access, or because they are forced to share a device with family members. Teachers across the country report donating or fundraising for laptops and technology to students.

Natasha Escobar teaches Spanish at Benjamin Franklin High School, which was able to distribute hundreds of laptops to its students. But she says some students lack broadband at home which remains a barrier.

“[Online learning] is going to amplify deficits,” Escobar said. “I think the question is if folks are going to work to address those, both in the moment of crisis and on long term scale.”

Abid and Escobar are part of a coalition of groups that successfully lobbied the Baltimore City council to allocate $3 million towards expanding broadband access and purchasing laptops for Baltimore City school students.

Some experts say far more needs to be done to equitably distribute resources to those who need them.

“Even the United Nations recognizes internet access is a basic human right,” said Abid, “that it’s necessary for people to achieve their full potential and improve quality of life. This is not being met in the U.S.”

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.