Emergency Connectivity Fund offers a lifeline for American students
By John P. Bailey
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made access to the internet more important than ever
for America’s students. But the “homework gap” — the term coined to describe students who don’t have the home internet capability to do class assignments or online learning — continues to hinder the response and recovery services offered by schools. According to a Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group analysis, as many as 15 million of the country’s 51 million public school students lacked adequate connectivity and devices to learn from home.
This technological gap has exacerbated other educational divides. Last year, students who lacked devices and connectivity couldn’t access online courses or participate in lessons taught over Zoom. Disconnected students also struggled this year when local outbreaks of the delta and omicron variants triggered quarantines, forcing students back into temporary remote learning for as long as two weeks at a time.
Ensuring students have access to a connected device at home will also be vital in supporting recovery services. Home connectivity allows just-in-time access to live tutors to help students catch up academically. Telehealth can quickly scale health services for students and assist school nurses who are already stretched thin by the pandemic’s demands. And while the mental health crisis affecting children is worsened by the fact that 70 percent of counties lack a child psychiatrist, new online services can help provide crisis support for students and their families — or just help teachers serve the social and emotional needs of their students. Students having their own connected device also allows schools to rethink instructional models and combine the best of online learning with the best of in-person instruction.
To close this home connectivity divide, Congress established a $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) through the American Rescue Plan. The program is administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) using the existing E-rate program infrastructure. Eligible schools (public, private, and in some cases even homeschool students) and libraries can seek reimbursement of costs for laptop and tablet computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connectivity purchases for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons. The program provides up to $400 for each connected device (laptops and tablets) and up to $250 for each Wi-Fi hotspot.
The FCC opened two application windows that generated more than $6.1 billion in requested support. As of December 2021 the FCC has committed more than $3.8 billion to support more than 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia, providing nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections. Additional awards will be announced in the weeks ahead.
The following table shows the total amount requested by each state along with the amount committed over the six waves of funding commitments.
This funding is in addition to the more than $65 billion provided under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which will help build out broadband networks to un- and underserved communities and make existing access more affordable for low-income families.
There is little time to waste. This connectivity will be the key factor for a student participating in courses, accelerating their learning recovery, and accessing other critical resources in the months ahead.
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