Mind the (homework) gap
States and schools still spending to get students home internet access
When classes went online last year, students without home internet balanced laptops on their knees in cars parked outside libraries and fast-food restaurants to join class or do homework. Schools and families scrambled to get every student connected. Administrators handed out mobile hotspots, laptops, and tablets, and beamed internet from fleets of buses parked around their school districts.
After years of students making do with limited home internet, the pandemic drove schools and governments to spend money on closing the homework gap—the lack of home internet and devices that kept many students from doing online homework. But after a full school year of often virtual classes, the gap still disrupts education. Another wave of government funding aims to meet immediate needs by next year, while slower projects offer a more permanent fix.
Before the pandemic, a large chunk of school aged children lacked the connectivity to complete online homework. And in 2020, the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that 8.4 million households or 16.9 million children lacked access to high-speed home internet, even as more and more schooling happened online.
Despite districts’ efforts during the pandemic, even many families with internet and devices didn’t have enough to meet the entire household’s needs, forcing students to take turns. More than half of parents in a survey of lower-income families reported their kids missed remote school due to trouble accessing either internet or a device, or had to do school from a smart phone.
Successful school connectivity plans have increased maintenance expenses. The number of schools supporting more than 7,500 devices rose from 33 percent in 2020 to about 49 percent this year, according to the Consortium for School Networking. More devices require more staff hours to update, repair, and clean laptops and tablets. As devices break or age, schools will need to decide whether to spend on replacements or let pandemic-era connectivity programs expire.
Students are still waiting for investments that will make a long-term dent in the homework gap. South Dakota will spend $100 million subsidizing fiber lines and antenna towers to bring internet to rural areas. Michigan plans to establish an office focused on getting high-speed internet to the whole state. If passed, Biden’s infrastructure plan would put another $65 billion into broadband access.
In the meantime, schools and libraries can get more help with their short-term efforts. The American Rescue Plan Act included $7.17 billion for an emergency connectivity fund through the FCC. Schools and libraries have until the end of June 2022 to spend the money on hotspots, laptops and tablets, modems and routers, and internet subscriptions for students and library patrons.
Previously, the FCC primarily funded internet access for schools and libraries, not homes. Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, explained the pandemic-driven shift to home access: “No child should have to sit outside a fast-food restaurant just to pick up a WiFi signal so they can get online and go to school.”
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