There may be 17 million students across the United States who still lack sufficient internet access for completing their homework or remotely attending school, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
In our most recent survey of E-rate applicants, 90% of schools and libraries said this “homework gap” is still a significant issue in their communities. It’s a challenge that nearly every school system has struggled with, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.
This last year, school systems have been working to bridge this gap utilizing a variety of federal programs that have been released such as ESSER, GEAR and CARES. In May, the FCC approved the final rules of the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. This historic, one-time program is uniquely aimed at the “homework gap” and provides funding for schools and libraries to purchase connected learning devices — laptops and tablets — and broadband equipment — Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers — and broadband services to support off-campus learning. This program is overseen by the FCC and administered through the federal E-rate program.
The ECF is intended to support educational activities taking place off campus, and is not limited to full-time remote learning students. Education has changed and multiple learning modalities are here to stay. The fund supports one mobile learning device per student and one broadband connection per remote learning location. That includes students’ homes, but the fund is not limited only to households. Places like community centers and even school buses are also eligible locations. However, fixed broadband connections within school or library facilities are not eligible for support through the program.
Devices are a brand-new territory for the E-rate program. Through the ECF, schools and libraries are eligible for up to $400 in federal support for each laptop, Chromebook or tablet computer purchased for remote learning. Schools and libraries can spend more than $400 on a device, but they will only be reimbursed up to that $400 figure. Only one device per student is eligible for support. There is no allowance for breakage, so the fund won’t support the purchase of spares. Smartphones aren’t covered, as the FCC has taken the position that these devices aren’t sufficient for remote learning.
The broadband connections can include one mobile hotspot per user (up to $250 in value), or one fixed connection to a household or other remote location. There are no minimum standards for the broadband speeds or services. Broadband connections that allow students and school staff to get online for educational purposes are eligible for support, provided the recipient doesn’t already have high-speed internet service. Cellular air cards for mobile devices are also eligible.
Many school systems have been exploring how they might extend their networks off campus to support remote learning. The FCC has specifically stated that off-campus network construction is not reimbursable under the ECF, unless there is no other form of commercial internet service available in that area. Schools and libraries will need to provide evidence documenting this lack of service if they request funding for off-campus construction.
Because this is an emergency program, everything is on a fast pace. There will be a 45-day filing window to apply for ECF funding, and we expect the window to open by the end of June. This first application window only covers new purchases made between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. K-12 leaders will have to consider what additional devices and broadband services they’ll need to extend learning beyond their campuses, and do it quickly.
It’s possible there will be additional filing windows, if any of the $7.17 billion that Congress has appropriated still remains after this initial application process. In that case, the FCC might open a filing window for additional new purchases, and/or a retroactive window for schools and libraries to apply for reimbursement on devices, hotspots, and other off-campus connectivity purchased from March 2020 through June 2021.
Unlike the regular E-rate program, there is no competitive bidding requirement (although schools and libraries must still follow all applicable state and local regulations). In other words, applicants won’t have to file a Form 470 and seek multiple bids. They will simply file a Form 471 application indicating their needs.
We know there is a huge need for closing the homework gap, and the ECF is a terrific first step. But this is not a one-and-done challenge, and $7.17 billion in one-time support is not going to solve the problem long term.
My hope is that every school and library applies for funding in order to document the scope of the challenge we face, so it’s clear to Congress and the FCC that there is an ongoing need for support. Ideally, this process will create a record that provides the basis for a sustainable program to help bridge the homework gap, so that no students are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
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