May 7, 2020
Updated: September 14, 2020
Inequities in Internet Access
States have done remarkable work in recent years to ensure that their schools are connected to wireless internet, as 99 percent of K-12 schools in the United States are now on scalable connections. These developments are great news for students and educators as they integrate internet and technological resources to enhance learning – in the classroom. The current pandemic has illustrated an issue, however – that many students lack access to the internet outside of the classroom. Though an already pressing problem, the inequities we see in internet access are exacerbated when students must learn remotely full-time.
Competing for Limited Technological Resources
Additionally, the demand for educational technology is greater than ever, and because of that rising demand, technological shortages (specifically shortages of Chromebooks and iPads) mean that districts have been unable to acquire the resources their students need. Much of this shortage can be traced to disrupted supply chains coming out of China, which have been in recovery in recent months after nearly coming to a standstill in the early spring. Large school districts that possess significant buying power can use their size to their advantage to offer competitive bids on a limited supply. Most districts, however, do not have the resources to compete, creating a monumental challenge in ensuring that all households can access the technological devices necessary for a quality remote learning experience. Conquering this challenge will be difficult, as an estimated 27 million households in the United States lack a desktop or laptop, and an estimated 10 million households lack any electronic devices.
COVID-19 forced federal, state, and district leaders to pivot on a dime, transitioning to a remote learning setting that few districts had the technological infrastructure to deploy well, and as the 2020-2021 academic year is underway, millions of students will continue to learn remotely for the foreseeable future.
In this difficult and unique time, the sharing and distribution of ideas and best-practices are critical. Below are options for policymakers to consider as they work to meet the needs of all students, as well as approaches being taken by states to cater to students with limited broadband and/or technological access.
Encourage state leaders to use state and federal funds to fully or partially subsidize broadband expenses for low-income households.
As the 2020-2021 academic year begins, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey committed $100 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to purchase internet service for low-income households with eligible K-12 students. This is a solid policy option for policymakers still contemplating how to best utilize CARES Act dollars that may remain on the table.
Think about long-term solutions to help K-12 schools in the event of future pandemics and/or unexpected school closures.
Improve the federal mapping system to accurately identify broadband access in rural areas. The current Census block methodology used by the FCC does not accurately capture the realities of access in rural areas where the blocks cover larger geographic areas, and often overstates coverage.
Develop public and private partnerships to leverage public funds in order to build the infrastructure necessary to expand broadband access in rural regions. Current federal funds include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program, the USDA Rural Utilities Service’s Telecommunications Programs, and the FCC’s Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. For example, Michigan providers received $22.5 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Broadband ReConnect Program to expand broadband access to rural and underserved areas.
Invest in community-owned, multi-user network infrastructure. Electric cooperatives have the infrastructure and the community investment to lead broadband expansion in rural areas. The Greenlight program in Wilson, North Carolina has achieved universal access to broadband for every home and business within the corporate limits of the city. A study found that Greenlight resulted in a savings of $1 million each year to the community due to lower prices from the introduction of competition.
Develop digital literacy programs to utilize when expanding broadband coverage. Simply providing broadband access does not guarantee parents and students have the skills to use it to maximize student learning. Digital inclusion for traditionally underserved and disconnected communities is a necessary component of bridging the digital divide.
In Texas, the state government established Operation Connectivity, an initiative designed to lead the charge on providing students devices and reliable internet connections. The initiative was also established to provide guidance on solutions to consider to achieve greater connectivity, as well as push for diagnosing the root causes of lack of connectivity.
Legislate Technology Accommodations for Remote Learning. In Pennsylvania, Senate Bill 440, which passed in July 2019, requires that districts opting to use technology to offer remote instruction must outline accommodations for students with limited/no internet access. In Minnesota, state law requires that districts that wish to have “e-learning days” in lieu of school closures submit implementation plans to the Minnesota Department of Education. A plan submitted by a district will not be approved unless it has accommodations in place for both online instruction and for children and families with restricted and/or no internet access. Each student’s teacher must be accessible via online instruction or by telephone. An “e-learning” day, as stated by statute 120A.414, is “…a school day where a school offers full access to online instruction provided by students’ individual teachers due to inclement weather.”
Partner with districts and telecommunications firms to establish Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the state. Additionally, create maps to ensure that residents know where to locate them.
In Arizona, the state government developed a hotspot map to assist residents in locating public Wi-Fi hotspots.
In Michigan, the state government partnered with Connected Nation Michigan to develop a statewide hotspot map to assist residents in finding hotspots for students to complete their schoolwork.
In North Carolina, the state created an Internet Service Offerings Map showing internet access available to the public.
In Ohio, the state government used $50 million from the CARES Act to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots and internet-enabled devices. Additionally, the state government is waiving a 50 percent match contribution for school districts to access the money.
Form partnerships with public media to broadcast instructional content online.
In Massachusetts, Massachusetts’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education partnered with public media outlets in Boston and Springfield to provide distance learning via broadcast for students in grades Pre-K-12.
In North Carolina, the Department of Public Instruction partnered with the state’s public television station, UNC-TV, to provide academic content for students grades four through 12.
In the spring, public media in Virginia formed partnerships to provide high-quality instruction to the Commonwealth’s students. Blue Ridge PBS, VPM, WETA, and WHRO Public Media worked closely with the Virginia Department of Education to create “VA TV Classroom” to provide instruction to students in grades K-10 who are unable to access other distance learning options due to a lack of high-speed internet. “VA TV Classroom” began broadcasting instructional content on April 13th and has been playing from 1-3 PM Monday-Friday.
Establish grant programs to assist districts in boosting their distance learning, broadband, and technological infrastructures.
In Mississippi, the state established the Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Grant Program, designed to provide financial support via grants to districts, Native American tribal schools, and independent schools to expand broadband in underserved areas of the state.
In Texas, the Texas Education Agency’s Instructional Continuity Grant provides funding for supplemental resources to increase districts’ capacity to facilitate instructional continuity and distance, remote and/or virtual learning for campuses.. District awards range from $10,500 and $220,000, based on the number of identified schools.