Students around the country need Congress and the FCC to act (Reader Forum)

The coronavirus pandemic has placed schools across the United States in unprecedented circumstances. Thousands of schools are offering instruction exclusively online. Thousands more are operating with hybrid models that couple distance learning with time inside school buildings, an approach that likely will continue into 2021. Unfortunately, millions of children in the U.S. do not have access to the devices or connectivity necessary to participate fully in distance learning. Schools, school districts, and state education leaders have worked to meet students’ needs, but federal support for America’s students, especially in rural and historically disadvantaged communities, has fallen short. Congress should act now to provide schools additional resources for broadband. Even if Congress does not act, the Federal Communications Commission should use its authority and resources to provide more connectivity and device support to students and schools.

When schools closed for the summer, many government leaders and educators hoped students would be able to return to classrooms in the fall. Unfortunately, the summer spike in COVID-19 cases crested as schools were making final preparations to begin the school year, and many school districts were forced to begin the year offering either fully virtual or hybrid instruction.  As a result, almost all of the more than 50 million public school students in the U.S. are engaged in some amount of distance learning, and more than half are receiving all of their instruction online.

With distance learning as the primary education delivery method in schools across the country, connectivity is more important than ever. At the same time, as Brookings scholar Nicol Turner Lee writes, the limitations of our broadband networks and the implications of the disparities have never been more apparent. At least 16 million U.S. school children do not have a home internet connection and 9 million do not have a device at home that is adequate to support distance learning. The lack of connectivity is an issue of both access and affordability that disproportionately affects Black, Latino, and Native American households, as well as high poverty, rural, and Southern communities. Although residents of rural communities are often the face of the digital divide, it is in fact both a rural and an urban problem. Rural communities have disproportionately higher percentages of students without access, but in absolute numbers more urban households remain unconnected, especially in high poverty neighborhoods.

What Have Congress and the FCC Done to Support Distance Learning During the Pandemic?

The CARES Act, signed by President Trump on March 27, established the Coronavirus Relief Fund to provide supplemental funding to states that could be used for a variety of purposes, including broadband. However, a requirement that CARES Act funds be spent by December 30 has largely limited states’ broadband expenditures to short term measures like acquiring Wi-Fi hotspots rather than investments that will provide long term support for students. In addition, because state grants were discretionary, broadband was in competition with a variety of other needs at the state level. Congress also created the Education Stabilization Fund to be administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which authorized funds to be used for a variety of purposes including distance learning.

In March, the FCC waived the E-Rate program’s gift rules to make it easier for service providers to work with schools to provide connectivity and provided schools with flexibility on certain compliance requirements. Those modifications were extended through December 2020. The FCC also enlisted service providers to keep their customers connected despite their failure to pay their bills for service through the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which lasted through June. The FCC also worked with the U.S. ED to help schools and school districts who want to use their allocations from the the Education Stabilization Fund for remote learning. However, the FCC has not fully leveraged its most powerful tool, E-Rate, because the FCC leadership maintains that the Communications Act only allows the FCC to fund broadband in traditional classrooms and libraries.

Congress Needs to Include Broadband Funding in the Next COVID Relief Bill

Congressional action on broadband has stalled since passage of the CARES Act despite bipartisan support in Congress and with voters for closing the digital divide and despite the fact that millions of students remain without adequate tools for distance learning. Congress should act now to provide additional broadband funding to address this national crisis affecting students in every state and the District of Columbia. Some experts suggest that children may never fully recover from learning loss suffered during the pandemic. Improving broadband access and minimizing harmful learning disruptions is essential for students and for America’s continued economic success.

The HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May, includes $5.5 billion in broadband funding. The bill would authorize $4 billion for broadband subsidies and allow internet service providers to seek reimbursements for providing connected devices to eligible households. The bill would also authorize $1.5 billion for E-Rate and statutorily expand eligible products and services to include connectivity and devices used outside the classroom. Including programs like these in the next COVID relief legislation would provide a life-raft to schools and school districts that are struggling to meet students’ educational needs.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also recently revealed that he has spoken with members of Congress about an education version of the popular telehealth program Congress established in the CARES Act, which included $200 million in funding and allowed the FCC to waive temporarily certain telehealth restrictions. An education program could similarly loosen some of the E-Rate program rules and provide much needed relief to schools.

Even without new funding, Congress could increase resources available for broadband expansion by providing flexibility in the requirements for spending CARES Act funds. States have been apprehensive about using CARES Act appropriations for broadband because of concerns about meeting the law’s December 30, 2020, completion deadline. Relaxing those requirements would allow states to pursue better solutions for students who likely still will be engaged in virtual instruction in 2021.

Expanding E-Rate Is the Most Valuable Action the FCC Could Take

In the absence of congressional action, many want the FCC to do more.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who coined the term “the homework gap” to describe the digital divide’s impact on learning, has called for a stronger FCC response during COVID-19, asserting that the FCC already has the authority use E-Rate to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and other connectivity devices for students to use at home and should do so immediately. She also encouraged the FCC to reinvigorate its Lifeline program and expand outreach to eligible citizens.

Since joining the FCC, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks has eloquently highlighted the impact of the digital divide on historically disadvantaged communities. During the pandemic, he has sounded the alarm in speeches and appearances, including an op-ed with civil rights leaders calling broadband a “civil right” and proposing government action. In March, Commissioner Starks suggested that the FCC initiate a “connectivity and economic stimulus” to address broadband disparities. Commissioner Starks has maintained that the FCC already has the authority to revise the E-Rate rules to fund access to broadband connections that students can use at home. And he urged the FCC to expand participation in Lifeline through formal partnerships with other agencies that serve our most vulnerable citizens.

The FCC could also act on a pending petition from the Attorney General of Colorado. The petition asks the FCC “to temporarily waive some E-Rate program restrictions to allow schools to extend their broadband internet networks to students’ homes for educational purposes and to allow E-Rate funds to be directed to support Wi-Fi hotspots or other broadband connections for students.” Advocacy groups are also calling for the FCC to waive these restrictions. Granting this petition would provide immediate relief to students and schools throughout the U.S.

Senate Democrats are also increasing pressure on the FCC. In a recent letter led by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), the author of the original E-Rate legislation, and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), nearly forty senators admonished the FCC for “dragging its feet” on broadband expansion for online learning. The senators insisted that the FCC need not wait on legislation from Congress, because it already has emergency authority to act and the “classrooms” E-Rate was created to serve are now at home. At the same time, these senators have pushed for Congress to legislate. Senator Markey was the lead Senate sponsor of the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which was co-sponsored by most of the Democratic Caucus. The original bill was introduced in the House by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) and served as the foundation of the E-Rate provisions contained in the HEROES Act. They have consistently urged the Senate to pass a bill with broadband funding, but negotiations on coronavirus relief remain stalled and it seems unlikely that a broadband measure will pass as an independent piece of legislation.

Support for remote learning should be bipartisan and members of Congress and the FCC need to make such support a priority in addressing the coronovirus.  Now is not the time for the FCC to be timid about using its E-Rate program authority and Congress should be laser focused on ensuring that schools and school districts have the funds they need to support remote learning.  Students, parents and educators face many challenges in navigating the pandemic.  Swift and decisive action by Congress and the FCC could at least address the connectivity challenge.

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