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The State of the Digital Divide: School Districts Race to Complete Applications for New $7.2 Billion Technology Fund as Push for Remote Learning Intensifies

By Linda Jacobson | August 10, 2021

Students in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas participated in remote learning last fall. Some families with multiple children online have struggled with reliable connections. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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School districts have until Friday to apply for almost $7.2 billion in funding to help students connect to the internet and, for the first time, pay for students’ broadband service at home.

But the narrow, 45-day window for districts to apply comes in the middle of the summer as leaders are scrambling to prepare for a new school year and face a host of unknowns.

“I think a lot of schools are going to say, ‘We can’t do it,’” said Evan Marwell, CEO of nonprofit Education SuperHighway, a nonprofit working to improve at-home broadband service for students.

If they don’t apply for the new Emergency Connectivity Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan, districts could miss out on critical funding at a time when demand for remote learning options this fall is increasing. While most say they’re committed to fully reopening, concerns about rising COVID-19 cases are prompting more parents to push for virtual learning. The question is whether students — especially those in lower-income homes — will still have to contend with glitchy Zoom sessions or getting kicked off line in the middle of submitting assignments.

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Home internet access has increased substantially in recent years, but 11 percent of families still depend on mobile devices for service, according to a survey released last month from New America and Rutgers University. Among those with at-home broadband service, more than half described their service as too slow.

A survey released last month by the Consortium for School Networking, a professional group for district technology leaders, showed that almost three-quarters of respondents said they plan to apply for the new federal funds. But only 170 members took the survey. A spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission, which runs the program, said the agency doesn’t have data on how many districts have applied so far. Christine Fox, senior director of external relations at the Consortium, added that some districts are waiting for a second application window, but the FCC said there’s no guarantee there will be one.

‘COVID numbers increasing’

Arkansas is among the states where some districts are applying for the technology fund and seeing a growing demand for remote learning. Applications from districts that want to offer virtual academies have been pouring into the education department. In mid-June, Don Benton, assistant commissioner for research and technology, had received 125 requests. By last week, most of those had been approved, with at least another 75 pending.

Benton expected as much, with “COVID numbers increasing … due the abysmal number of people getting vaccinated and taking the vaccination, social distancing, and precautions seriously.” Less than half of the state’s vaccine-eligible population has had one dose, according to one tracker.

In other parts of the country, many districts decided to continue offering virtual learning to accommodate parent demand — even before COVID cases began to rise again. One tracker showed two-thirds of the nation’s top districts will offer virtual academies, and the Austin Independent School District in Texas, even opened up its virtual learning program for elementary students outside the district.

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The Harrison School District in northwest Arkansas is among those putting final touches on a connectivity fund application and planning to use the money for more hotspots.

Susan Gilley, the district’s executive director of federal programs, said she’s most concerned about students having reliable internet and those “that live so remotely that even cellular Wi-Fi is unavailable.” The district is allowing remote learning for third grade and above.

The 2,700-student district supplied 100 families with hotspots last school year and plans to increase that to 1,000, Gilley said. The district also hopes to purchase 1,100 devices for students and outfit its entire fleet of 37 buses with Wi-Fi routers, up from eight last year.

But some experts want districts to think beyond devices.

“Districts for the most part have plenty of tools already,” said Joseph South, chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education.

The uncertainty about reopening means districts need to be ready to adapt to changing situations, he said. Even if schools don’t close completely this fall because of positive case rates, there have already been examples of students being sent home to quarantine.

Successful models, South said, “require an approach where technology is being used face-to-face in ways that are effective each day, but that also lay a foundation for a shift to more reliance on the technology if face-to-face engagement has to be curtailed.”

Benton, in Arkansas, added that if districts are going to allow remote learning, he’d like them to give parents better information on how to keep students at home on track. A recent study from the University of Missouri showed that the transition to remote learning put particular stress on Black families who often lacked reliable internet and the technological know-how to keep students connected.

“We can have the best technology, teachers and tools available, but without quality family engagement, we are missing a huge piece for student success,” Benton said.

‘Not all hotspots are equal’

The Emergency Connectivity Fund is similar to an existing internet discount program for schools and libraries, known as E-Rate. Funds can cover the cost of devices, hotspots and routers on Wi-Fi-enabled buses. Larger districts with technology departments might be in a better position to develop strong plans and meet the program’s requirements, Marwell said. But others might just buy more hotspots because that’s easier than negotiating a plan with an internet provider to provide service to students’ homes.

In general, hotspots are only as good as the surrounding cell service, meaning they provide spotty connections in a lot of rural areas and often aren’t strong enough for multiple family members to be online at one time. Wired connections, linked to fiber-optic cable, are faster and more reliable, but many communities still don’t have service. That’s one need the infrastructure bill, which the Senate was expected to pass Tuesday, would address.

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Hotspots “worked great for some students,” Marwell said, “but that didn’t work well for a lot of students.”

After a year in which some students had no face-to-face learning, researchers have a better handle on where the nation’s broadband infrastructure fell short in meeting the needs of families with multiple children learning at home.

As the nation transitioned to remote work and learning, complaints to the FCCskyrocketed, according to a recent Carnegie Mellon University analysis. Most users complained that providers offered faster “downstream” service — the ability to download files or videos — than the “upstream” capabilities needed to submit files like school assignments.

“The implications for [internet service providers] are obvious,” the authors wrote. “Even after COVID-19 has been tamed, we will probably see more people working and going to school from home than before the pandemic.” The authors said providers will have to reconsider the speed customers need to upload data “or risk becoming less competitive.”

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Companies marketing internet solutions to districts are also trying to address families’ frustrations with unreliable service. Last month, Kajeet — known for enabling school buses to blast Wi-Fi into neighborhoods with limited broadband — launched its new HomeWireless service, a fixed connection suitable for households with multiple family members online.

Michael Flood, Kajeet’s senior vice president for education and general manager, added that hotspots are still a better solution for students who aren’t always learning at home. “Not all hotspots are equal,” he said, adding that some are five times as fast as the ones many districts purchased and distributed last year.

In Congress, Democrats in the House and Senate are hoping to turn the temporary Emergency Connectivity Fund into a five-year, $40 billion program. The proposed SUCCESS Act could turn up as future legislation under the $3.5 trillion spending package Democrats unveiled Monday.

For now, districts are trying to comply with the fine print for the new program. That includes estimating how many students need devices or internet service.

Another requirement is that districts can’t use the funds to provide devices or broadband to students who have been served under another state or federal program, such as last year’s relief funds. In fact, in some districts where students already had devices, officials used those earlier funds to pay for at-home internet. That’s one reason why they’re waiting for a second application window as their needs this year become clearer.

The connectivity fund “is an off-shoot of a program that has a history of being tight on rules and regulations,” Marwell said, referring to E-Rate. “The last thing a school wants to do is spend a million on home broadband and find out they didn’t follow these rules.”

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