Future Tense

The Homework Chasm

As the coronavirus pandemic turns homes into classrooms, federal policymakers need to act to help all students stay connected.

A boy sitting at a table writes on paper with a pen.
Santi Vedrí/Unsplash

The children in the Jeffries family were facing a familiar problem. As schools in San Antonio, like those around the country, were closed because of COVID-19, the children received Chromebooks to access their online lessons. But, according to the San Antonio Express-News, while the Jeffries now had devices, they did not have internet access—and they could not receive the free service offered by their local provider during the pandemic because of an outstanding balance.

Millions of students across the country are in this same position—without home broadband access and trying not to fall behind while away from school. Resourceful families have long used schools, libraries, and places like Starbucks and McDonald’s to access free Wi-Fi for homework and other needs. But with those options closed (or not allowing customers to congregate as usual), students are out of luck. Some school districts are providing physical packets for the students to fill out at home, supplemented by calls with teachers. While these materials technically do not require internet for completion, the lack of online resources to guide students’ work and aid in research still hinders students without access and leaves some students without the online remote learning experience their peers are having, which more closely reflects that of a classroom. These disparities aren’t new, but they are being greatly illuminated—and exacerbated—by the current crisis.

Communities across the nation are working hard to address the issue of connectivity for students. Some companies have stepped up to offer 60 days of free internet service for households with K–12 students without internet access (though, as in the case of the Jeffries family, hurdles may remain). In other cases, school districts are employing strategies to make Wi-Fi available themselves: In Bloomington, Illinois, public school officials sent out more than 250 hotspots for students and faculty to address the connectivity gap. In South Bend, Indiana, schools have dispatched a fleet of about 20 buses equipped with Wi-Fi to rotate through over 30 spots across the city. In the past, school districts in southern Virginia have used TV white space technology—long-range Wi-Fi that uses the vacant television channels available in rural and small-town areas—to extend schools’ internet to students at home, another option that could see use again soon.

But we need a national approach, not an ad hoc strategy. Otherwise, large swaths of the student population risk losing weeks or months of their education and falling dangerously far behind their peers.

This homework gap has long been a problem: An estimated 12 million children do not have internet access at home. That divide disproportionately harms students from historically marginalized communities and rural and tribal areas. The Pew Research Center reported that 17 percent of U.S. teenagers they surveyed said they are either often or sometimes unable to complete homework due to a lack of a reliable internet connection or computer. That number is even worse for low-income students, as 24 percent of teenagers living in a household with less than $30,000 of annual income reported the same. Yet an estimated 70 percent of teachers in the U.S. assign homework that requires internet access to complete, and that share is believed to increase in high school. Research has also found that students who have internet access at home consistently earn higher scores in testing for reading, math, and science.

The homework gap has long been concerning, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it means millions of American students will be unable to keep up with their connected peers and could lose a significant portion of their education. Students’ homes are now their classrooms, and millions of those homes do not have broadband connectivity. This requires immediate action to ensure students can get the connectivity needed to keep up their studies.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have several options, but one of the most pertinent to the issue of education is the FCC’s E-Rate program. E-Rate’s mission is to provide telecommunications services (which today includes broadband and Wi-Fi) to “elementary schools, secondary schools, and libraries for educational purposes at rates less than the amounts charged for similar services to other parties,” according to the 1996 Telecommunications Act that created the program. E-Rate, one of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund programs, has been a success in improving broadband access for schools and libraries since the FCC modernized the program in 2014.

Historically, E-Rate has helped schools pay for high-speed broadband connections as well as for Wi-Fi networks to spread that connectivity throughout school buildings. But funding can and should also be used to provide broadband services for “educational purposes” beyond the walls of a school, particularly during this pandemic. This doesn’t mean directly paying parents’ internet bills. The FCC should dedicate a special allocation of money from the Universal Service Fund to reimburse schools and libraries that purchase and loan out Wi-Fi hotspots to students who live in homes that lack adequate broadband access, as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and 16 U.S. senators recently recommended. The FCC could also leverage E-Rate support to empower local educational institutions to extend their broadband access to their communities using innovative methods, like the bus fleet in Indiana, TV white spaces, and other wireless internet service technologies.

Although Congress could and should include its own funding to assist households without adequate internet access during the crisis in emergency relief legislation—as an even larger group of senators has suggested—the FCC can use some of what is estimated to be up to $2 billion unallocated in the E-Rate budget toward this effort.

The idea of using E-Rate funds beyond the walls of schools and libraries is not brand-new. The Government Accountability Office recommended the FCC review making E-Rate funding applicable for off-school premises connectivity in a 2019 report. There are petitions pending at the FCC from 2016 by school districts, telecommunications carriers, broadband advocates, and Microsoft requesting authorization for schools to use E-Rate funds to extend wireless internet access to students for educational purposes off-campus. And even back in 2010, the FCC established a pilot program that allocated up to $10 million in funding (for 2011) for which schools and libraries could apply to support “innovative and interactive off-premise wireless device connectivity.”

The FCC has issued clarification that schools and libraries can leave their Wi-Fi networks on even as they are closed, enabling the community to use E-Rate networks while on campuses or school and library properties. This reassures schools and libraries that they can leave their networks operational without risking losing funding, and could allow students to use these Wi-Fi networks from a parked car near a school or library. However, it still requires students to venture close enough to their schools and libraries—which are closed—to access the internet required for their education, potentially endangering themselves and others with travel and congregation. The FCC (or Congress) should extend E-Rate connectivity directly to students who are self-isolating or sheltering in place, thereby facilitating remote learning off-campus (which, again, will be the indefinite new “on-campus” for millions of students).

So far, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has done important work during the COVID-19 pandemic by securing commitments from telecommunications providers that include removing data caps, opening Wi-Fi hotspots, and pledging not to terminate service or impose late fees on households that cannot pay due to issues surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. The FCC has also temporarily removed E-Rate “gift” rules that restrict the equipment and services that schools and libraries are allowed to accept from telecommunications providers during the pandemic. Pai’s work so far has been significant, but even more can be done. An important next step would be ensuring that the households that do not already have access to broadband get the assistance they need so all students can fully participate in their classwork.

Of course, closing the homework gap is a difficult undertaking (particularly during a pandemic), and addressing the divide between those with and without home internet should not be the only focus in addressing the problems facing educators right now. But organized and concerted efforts to expand internet access can and should be used to alleviate the issues of the homework gap both while schools are closed and in the long term.

A version of this piece also appeared on the Open Technology Institute’s blog.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.