President Joe Biden signed a stimulus bill on Thursday that includes funding to expand Internet connectivity for underserved students during the COVID-19 pandemic, which ed tech advocates hail as a major step forward.
While truly universal Internet access is still a ways off, yesterday marked a milestone in a yearlong push by ed-tech policy advocates to expand reliable high-speed Internet to millions of rural and low-income students learning remotely during COVID-19 school closures.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, including more than $7.1 billion for the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program that funds school broadband connectivity and hot spots, routers and other devices needed to facilitate remote or hybrid learning.
Reg Leichty, policy counsel for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said he was grateful for the bill following months of CoSN efforts to convince lawmakers of such needs during the public health crisis. He said the funding serves as a “great down payment” on the work that will be needed ahead to further close the digital divide.
“As we mark the one-year anniversary of the country’s abrupt shift to remote learning, the need for all students to have access to digital learning is even more apparent,” he said in an email to Government Technology. “We live in a world where access to online resources and learning is an essential part of normal schooling.”
Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition spokeswoman Alicja Johnson said the funding represents a historic step forward in closing the digital divide among students — an issue that has exacerbated learning loss particularly among students of color and students in other underserved communities.
“Compared to the CARES Act, which spent a little under $2 billion on remote learning, the American Rescue Plan’s funding will go a lot further toward ending the homework gap for millions of kids. We expect to see a lot of schools partner with broadband companies to purchase home Internet for students in need, but some will opt to deploy their own networks through new wireless solutions,” she said Friday in an email.
Still, Johnson said policymakers must recognize that the FCC funding isn’t a permanent solution to the digital divide in education.
“Even after the pandemic, students will need home broadband for their homework, so SHLB encourages policymakers to pursue legislation that will take a long-term approach to closing the digital divide for everyone in the country,” Johnson added.
The coalition and others have also urged lawmakers to support the Accessible, Affordable Internet For All Act, reintroduced Thursday by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and Senate Broadband Caucus co-chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to provide over $90 billion in funding aimed at expanding broadband infrastructure and adoption in underserved communities.
Julia Fallon, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, noted that connectivity isn’t the only concern in an increasingly tech-integrated educational landscape that will remain even after millions of students make their way back to schools.
A more long-term approach to closing the divide, Fallon said, could facilitate future virtual shifts that may be necessary for things like natural disasters. She noted that funding to mitigate the divide has been a concern for policy advocates long before the pandemic brought the issue into focus.
“Other places that we see some need for is professional learning for our educators and administrators on how to effectively integrate technology into the learning environment, especially when students and educators are back in the school buildings full time,” she said. “We don’t want this investment to go to waste.”
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