When the coronavirus pandemic forced students into remote learning this past spring, many telecommunications companies stepped up to offer free or deeply discounted home broadband access to families who couldn’t afford it. Now, those temporary offers have largely expired — and yet remote learning seems likely to continue in at least some capacity when school resumes this fall.
This raises key questions for K-12 leaders to resolve: How will students from low-income families connect to the internet to learn from home if they can’t attend school physically this fall? What role can school systems play in ensuring home broadband access for all students, given the budget crisis many districts will be facing next year?
The simplest solution would be for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to lift the restrictions barring E-rate recipients from using their networks to extend broadband service into students’ homes. However, this scenario isn’t likely to happen, according to John Harrington, CEO of the consulting firm Funds For Learning (FFL), which helps schools successfully apply for E-rate discounts.
In an interview, Harrington said that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai believes the agency doesn’t have the legal authority to lift this rule. Instead, he said, K-12 leaders must look to Congress for help — and Harrington urged leaders to contact their senators and representatives to lobby for more federal aid to support home broadband access.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a second coronavirus stimulus bill, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. The bill would provide $90 billion in additional money for K-12 schools and colleges, as well as $1.5 billion for an Emergency Connectivity Fund administered by the FCC to pay for WiFi hotspots and other home connectivity solutions to help with remote learning. (As of press time, the Senate had yet to take up the bill.)
The HEROES Act is a good start, Harrington said — but it doesn’t come close to meeting the need for home broadband access across the United States.
According to a report from Common Sense Media, some 15 million to 16 million students (about 30 percent) lack either high-speed internet access or a computing device to learn from home — and 9 million students lack both. What’s more, as many as 400,000 teachers face the same barriers in teaching from home.
Using federal Census data, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that 9 percent of U.S. families can’t afford home broadband access, FFL says — which works out to 7.15 million U.S. households. Equipping these households with a digital device, broadband service, and internet security would cost an estimated $7.5 billion altogether, FFL calculates.
Working with the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition and the State E-rate Coordinators Alliance, FFL has drafted a proposal that would close this gap. The plan, called the Remote Learning During COVID-19 Initiative, calls for $5.25 billion in federal funding for schools and libraries to provide broadband access for families who can’t afford it.
The funding would be distributed according to the E-rate formula, with schools and libraries contributing a portion of the cost themselves based on National School Lunch Program data. More than 1,900 individuals and organizations have endorsed the proposal, including the American Library Association and personnel from hundreds of school systems.
Although the proposal hasn’t made it into a House or Senate bill yet, Harrington said he’s heard interest from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. He urged K-12 leaders to sign the letter endorsing the plan or at least contact their federal legislators to raise awareness of the need for home broadband access to support remote learning — and to think about contingency plans if Congress doesn’t act before the new school year begins.
“The ‘homework gap’ is a misnomer,” he noted. “It’s no longer just about homework. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how essential home broadband access is for students to learn.”