Recent school closures and remote-work directives intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 will have a harsher impact on rural Missourians than their urban and suburban peers. The precautions against this highly contagious virus are understandable and probably the right call. But implementing this “digital distancing” will be much more difficult in rural Missouri than in cities.

We’ve written many times about the wide digital gap between rural areas and cities. More than 1 million rural residents in Missouri do not have access to high-speed Internet, more than any state except California or Texas. Missouri ranks 41st in the nation in broadband connectivity.

This lack of rural Internet connectivity causes plenty of day-to-day frustrations. But in a crisis like the current fight against coronavirus, the impact becomes even more glaring.

Several schools, including the University of Missouri, have suspended in-person classes. Many current courses will be held remotely via teleconferencing technology. Students will be expected to work on projects remotely and submit homework and take tests electronically. Many businesses are developing contingency plans that include employees working remotely. Travel can often be replaced with teleconferencing and virtual meetings. Email and paperless technologies allow information-sharing without physical, in-person contact.

Technological advances enabled by broadband Internet technology are valuable in our current fight. They let schools and businesses implement recommended “social distancing” without major disruption. Unfortunately, access to broadband is a limiting factor for rural students and employees. Working or studying remotely is only an option only if you have access to broadband.

Many students will have to drive to the closest McDonald’s or other fast-food restaurant to sit in the parking lot and listen to a lecture or do homework. Rural employees might simply not have the ability to work from home without broadband Internet access.

Developing broadband infrastructure throughout Missouri would help rural residents follow best health practices during future crises. Rural broadband would also bring more options for treating patients through remote telemedicine. When keeping doctors healthy is top priority, giving them options to assess and treat patients remotely is valuable. It would also help solve the chronic shortage of physicians faced by many rural areas.

In the face of a global pandemic, it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. However, we look forward to the day when remote access to school, work and health care is available to everyone, not only those who live in a city or town. We should see this event as a wake-up call to expand our infrastructure so that staying connected and healthy while at home is easier in the future.

Dan Cassidy of Fulton is chief administrative officer for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization. Eric Bohl of Columbia is the organization's director of public affairs and advocacy.

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