Living with the coronavirus is going to reveal hard truths about the digital divide.
This is especially true for students, who are being told in record numbers to head online for education. It’s time for a nationwide plan to ensure they can all get there. Like so much else, the internet has changed education. The days when out-of-school learning required only paper and pencil are long gone. Today, students live their lives online and use internet-based resources for so much of modern education.
Still, not every child has broadband at home. In fact, statistics at the Federal Communications Commission suggest that one in three households has no broadband access.
Imagine being a child in one of those households. Nightly schoolwork is challenging. Getting it done may require heading to the home of a friend or relative with broadband, a trip to the library, or nursing a soda in a fast food restaurant with free Wi-Fi.
These students fall into an especially cruel part of the digital divide, known as the homework gap. According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, the homework gap is real and affects 12 million children across the country. A study of census data from the Associated Press suggests that as many as 18 percent of students lack reliable internet access at home and struggle with school assignments that require it.
Now consider the coronavirus. Schools have closed across the country. In some places this is done at the state level, like in Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Louisiana. In others, like in California and Washington, schools are shuttered only in towns or counties where the risk of spreading and contracting the virus appears highest.
School administrators and teachers in those regions are already scrambling to identify how education can continue now that kids need to spend weeks at home. Setting up online learning is a challenge under the best of circumstances, requiring time, training, and skill. Because of this virus, all those things are in short supply. But in an outsized effort to ensure students have opportunities to learn while classes are cut, these online efforts are vitally important. We must do what we can to help these efforts succeed for all students, including those who fall into the homework gap and are at greatest risk of being left behind.
To fix this, the FCC should use its power in this emergency to provide schools with Wi-Fi hotspots to loan out to students who lack reliable internet access at home. It has the authority to do so under the Telecommunications Act. This law, now more than two decades old, directed the agency to set up a program to support internet service in schools across the country, through a program known as E-Rate. Today, E-Rate funds broadband for educational purposes in every state. In fact, it is our nation’s largest education technology program.
Under the law, support for internet service is available for “educational purposes” to enhance, to the extent technically feasible and economically reasonable, school classrooms. With schools closing and learning migrating online, this is the right moment to adjust FCC rules to expand how we think about internet access and the traditional classroom. Moreover, there is already support for doing so from major program beneficiaries, like schools and teachers.
Furthermore, the E-Rate program offers support on a sliding scale. More is available for schools with higher percentages of students receiving lunch at free or reduced cost. That means the schools receiving the greatest E-Rate support are most likely to be ones with students who lack access to broadband at home.
Alternatively, Congress may wish to step in and support this kind of initiative in upcoming efforts to address the coronavirus crisis. There are already homework gap-focused bills in both chambers of Congress, including legislation introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Representative Grace Meng (D-NY). These efforts could include legislation to expand student access to devices, too.
But the most important thing is to act now, so that no child is left offline.
Jessica Rosenworcel has served as a member of the Federal Communications Commission since 2012.