COVID-19 has made it clear that broadband access has become a necessity in the 21st century. This issue has always been important, but the pandemic has made solving it a top and urgent priority.

Like many districts, our schools launched distance learning when we were forced to close our school buildings in April. And we did our best to deliver instruction to all students despite a long list of immediate challenges and obstacles. However, it also became clear that many of our families lack the digital infrastructure that is crucial for conducting online learning at home.

This problem is not exclusive to Tennessee. As many as 12 million U.S. school-age children don't have access to the high-speed internet they need to complete schoolwork in their homes. This lack of broadband connectivity or "digital divide," tends to most often impact students from rural areas and from low-income, urban neighborhoods.

In fact, in Tennessee, nearly a half million families either have no internet access — or do not have adequate download speeds to support online learning.

This is especially true in our rural areas — where more than two-thirds of rural educators reported in a recent survey by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance that better internet access is needed to support remote learning.

And in 19 of our most rural school districts across the state, that number jumped to more than 75% of responding teachers saying that better internet access is essential to supporting remote instruction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted and amplified the critical gaps in Tennessee's internet access that is hindering our ability to educate students and serve our families and communities.

It is imperative for us as educators, parents, business leaders, elected officials, and policymakers to urgently advocate for additional investments to address these critical needs. We hope the Congress will take a look at this important issue as they consider additional investments to offset the damage brought by COVID-19.

With the Senate likely to take up infrastructure bills that include funding for expanding broadband access, I am encouraged by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's leadership on this issue. As a former governor and U.S. Secretary of Education, he knows no student should lag behind their peers from more urban and suburban areas just because they lack internet access at home or from trying to do their homework only on a smartphone.

But the need for federal investment in broadband infrastructure is not just for student learning. It is also needed in offering adult access to better healthcare services by tele-health, to attracting and growing new industry, and to creating new jobs.

If nothing else, the pandemic has confirmed that broadband has become just as important as electricity. Today's students need high-speed internet access and the devices required to learn, grow and succeed.

Tennessee has been a national leader and one of the fastest improving states in the nation in boosting student achievement.

Now we must meet these new challenges and invest the time and resources to better serve our schools and students. It is up to all of us to make sure that all students can access remote instruction from home. The federal government has a responsibility to help ensure this happens.

Mark Griffith is the director of schools in Marion County, Tennessee.