Current Pandemic Likely to Exacerbate a Longstanding “Homework Gap” Without Immediate Action
Washington, D.C. – Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet along with U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) led thirteen of their colleagues in calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to temporarily allow schools to utilize E-Rate program funding to provide Wi-Fi hotspots or devices with Wi-Fi capability to students who lack internet access at home. This action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency. The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is shining a bright light on the so-called “homework gap” experienced by 12 million students in this country. The gap refers to those students who do not have internet access at home and are unable to complete their homework – at a time when more than 70 percent of educators assign schoolwork that requires the internet.
The E-rate program is capped at $4 billion each year, with the FCC having already allocated about $2 billion this year, leaving approximately half of the funding available for potential emergency action. In their letter, the senators called on the FCC to determine how much of this funding can be spent on one-time discounts for schools seeking to loan Wi-Fi hotspots to students who do not have internet at home, as well as those trying to equip school-distributed devices with Wi-Fi capability that can be lent out while physical classes are on hold. The senators also requested the FCC make clear to state and local institutions that undertaking any similar measures during this crisis will not affect their future E-Rate eligibility.
“The E-Rate program is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet,” wrote Bennet and the senators in the letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home. This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency.”
Without FCC action, the existing inequity of the “homework gap” is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing number of schools that are suspending in-person classes and have transitioned to remote learning over the internet to protect the health of students, faculty, and staff. Temporarily changing E-Rate rules to allow financial support for home internet access would be of immense help to schools, students, and families at this time.
In addition to Bennet, Markey, and Schatz, the letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Angus S. King, Jr. (I-Maine), and Margaret Wood Hassan (D-N.H.).
The text of the letter is available HERE.Last Thursday, Bennet and 17 of his colleagues wrote to the nation’s eight largest internet service providers (ISPs), calling on them to take steps to accommodate the unprecedented reliance we will likely see on telepresence services, including telework, online education, telehealth, and remote support services, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Over the weekend, several ISPs announced that they will adopt practices to better accommodate remote technologies that students, workers, and public health officials will rely upon during the outbreak.