How Will Schools and the FCC Bridge the Homework Gap for Distance Learning?
In early March of 2020, the Coronavirus Pandemic stopped the world in its tracks. Schools were shut down across the country and left in a quandary to continue providing education outside the classroom. The pandemic significantly disrupted normalcy, and districts scrambled to find solutions to offer distance learning.
The problem facing school districts everywhere is how do schools ensure that all students have access to learning in a virtual environment when some students and teachers have no reliable broadband source?
The “homework gap,” according to the NEA, might be the “cruelest part of the digital divide.” The sudden shift to virtual learning has shone an even brighter light on the existing inequality for internet access.
The E-Rate Program provides funding to assist schools and libraries in the United States to obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access. However, this program’s rules do not grant students or teachers funding to access the internet at home. Now, Congress and the FCC will examine the E-Rates Program to bridge that gap fast amidst a global pandemic.
In this article, we’ll look at the current state of the E-Rate program: the proposed changes, the process for implementing changes, and insights on the pending legislation to revise the plan. We’ll dig into how our nation will ensure equal learning opportunities for all students since the pandemic has dismantled the traditional school setting.
Current State of the E-Rate Program
How can schools provide broadband access to teachers and students?
In a recent podcast, I met with Kim Friends, vice president of CSM Consulting, Inc. This company provides a broad range of compliance and software solutions for school districts, offices of education, department of education, and other educational organizations. Kim shed some valuable insights into the E-Rate Program’s current limitations. We discussed how the proposed reform might change the program rules to enable applicants (school districts) to obtain the resources they need to provide students equal opportunities to learn from home – primarily broadband access.
The problem facing districts is that you’ve got to have full internet access to facilitate learning and teaching when implementing a virtual learning program. The FCC and schools acknowledge this problem, and as it stands right now, there is no change to the FCC rules that allow a school district to provide broadband internet access to a student or teacher’s home. Hopefully, that’s something that will be changing.
Changing E-Rate rules isn’t a simple process.
The FCC must go through formal rulemaking proceedings; they cannot make a rule change unless Congress authorizes them to do so. Now faced with urgency to solve this problem, school districts must rely on Congress to expedite any rule changes.
Typically, a formal rulemaking proceeding through the FCC can take anywhere from three to six months, which isn’t too helpful considering school will start in just a few weeks. Many schools have chosen a hybrid learning environment, combining some in-person teaching, social distancing, and virtual learning. Some students will be learning from home while some will be attending school.
The current E-Rate rule doesn’t allow schools to deliver E-rate funded services outside of a school campus boundary. That’s limiting the school district’s options to bridge that homework gap and ensure equal opportunity for all students. Of course, for families that have access and can afford access – that’s no problem. However, there are plenty of rural students that the internet is simply not available to them at home – there just isn’t broadband in the area. Quickly solving these issues remains critical to districts everywhere that are trying to administer a distance learning environment.
What is the FCC doing now about E-Rates Issues?
When the president declared a national emergency back in mid-March, the FCC made a few quick changes. The first action they took was to temporarily waive the E-Rate gifting rule, limiting the gift value to less than $50 that a district can receive from a service provider. The waiver expires September 30 (but they might extend the deadline), hopefully allowing more robust public and private solutions during these trying times. Another factor is that the waiver is limited to offerings on behalf of students and teachers as schools remain closed.
Secondly, the FCC also extended some procedural deadlines that matured between March 11 and September 30, 2020. For example, the FCC extended the last date to deliver services on category two projects to September 30, following the closing funding year. Any deadline that matures on or before September 30, 2020, will automatically be extended to September 30, 2021. For invoicing, any deadlines that were due between March 11, 2020, and October 28, 2020, the FCC will extend automatically for 120 days. Additionally, a district may ask for another 120-day extension.
Kim doesn’t recommend delaying invoices – obviously, a district will want to get reimbursed ASAP, but the extension offers some breathing room.
Finally, the FCC extended the appeals deadline from 60 days from the date of the decision that you’re appealing to another 60 days. Districts will basically have 120 days to get the appeal submitted.
Proposed 2020 E-Rate Legislation
Two particular bills are the most exciting and relevant: The Moving America Forward Act (MAFA) and the Accessible Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIAA).
The MAFA may be the most exciting bill that proposes an additional $5 billion to expand the E-Rate program to fund home broadband connections, laptops and tablets for rural students, and mobile hotspot lending for schools and libraries. That’s $5 billion to expand the eligibility of E-Rate services being delivered to students’ and teachers’ homes and would also help support devices, which aren’t currently supported by the E-Rate Program. Additionally, the MAFA also proposes E-Rate funded WiFi access on school buses. There have been stories where districts have parked busses in neighborhoods with non-E-Rate-funded wifi to broadcast internet access.
The second bill is the AAIAA, which also talks about a $5 billion fund that would enable students without the internet at home to participate in remote learning. The bill would also authorize direct funding to support wifi on busses. However, it’s unclear if this bill would be funded through the E-Rate program, if there will potentially be another application process, or if the States may administer it.
Although both bills discuss the E-Rate Program’s future, the MAFA really centers on an E-Rate Program solution. In contrast, the AAIFAA acknowledges the importance of broadband connectivity at home for students and teachers learning and teaching in a virtual environment. Both review WiFi funding solutions, especially for communities that so desperately need internet access.
What about cybersecurity?
Another concern facing educators is cybersecurity. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw several issues across the nation, such as Zoom meeting hacks, etc. Currently, the FCC has not proposed any changes in 2020, likely due to strapped resources and the short timeline to solve major issues from the pandemic. This will likely be a topic addressed in 2021 for implementation in 2022.
What can districts do right now?
Take advantage of the gift rules waiver! Districts can reach out to providers and seek assistance with additional connectivity to help serve those underserved students and teachers. However, be sure not to work through any E-Rate-funded connections currently in place.
There’s a great opportunity with the gift rule waiver to establish partnerships with existing partners and to expand your offering to try to solve some of the problems facing districts in the short term. Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks we’ll here a positive change on the front to provide Internet access to students and teachers at home for those currently without access.
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