While the opening schools versus remote learning versus hybrid model debate rages on, a new study from Common Sense Media shows that 3 out of 10 of our nation’s K-12 students lack adequate internet or devices to sustain distance learning at home. This, as well as many other reports, show that the “homework gap” – which refers to school-age children who lack the connectivity necessary to complete schoolwork at home – is a real problem. And while this is not a new problem, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much needed awareness and urgency to the issue.
Families experiencing the digital divide must leave their homes to find reliable connectivity, possibly violating stay-at-home orders and risking infection. There are stories in the media nearly every day about kids outside fast food restaurants or in library parking lots attempting to get a Wi-Fi signal. Not surprisingly, traditionally disadvantaged groups like Black, Native American, and Latinx children experience the worst connectivity. While just 18% of white households lack adequate broadband, 26% of Latinx, 30% of Black, and 35% of Native American student households experience the digital divide.
This increased awareness of the nearly 16 million students without access has led many to suggest potential solutions. Some public policy advocates and businesses are now advocating for federal help to address this problem. One proposal that has emerged is to expand the existing subsidy program for schools and libraries, known as E-Rate, by $5 billion to include off-campus connectivity. While this is a great idea, there’s just one problem – the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leadership has argued they do not believe current law allows for funds to be used off campus – meaning this solution may require an act of Congress. For the many school districts starting classes in a matter of weeks, waiting for Congress is not a viable option.
The recent report from Common Sense Media mentions many other potential solutions as well, including advocating for direct funding from Congress in the short term to get devices and internet service in the hands of students who need them today and having the private sector prioritize education technology needs over other customers. In addition to supporting these ideas, we strongly support the Remote Learning Initiative legislation drafted by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, the State E-rate Coordinators’ Alliance (SECA), and Funds for Learning to provide funding to connect students, teachers, and adult learners to high-speed Internet access services.
The Common Sense Media report cautions against hotspots as a potential solution due to the typical cost over time. Not all hotspot programs are created equally though; many of our customers – including numerous school districts – have turned to mobile hotspots for a quick, scalable, and affordable solution. While skeptics may be correct that hotspots are not always the best long-term solution for everyone, a problem as significant as the digital divide requires tools of all kinds – federal subsidy programs, direct Congressional funding, municipal fiber projects, mobile hotspots, and more.
Mobile hotspot programs are varied and can provide immediate, affordable connectivity. Schools and library systems, like ones in Brooklyn and Cleveland for example, check out mobile hotspots to students or patrons like they would a book. And nonprofits like PCs for People, Human I-T and InterConnection provide refurbished computers and hardware along with mobile hotspots to connect low-income families.
As most of the country has transitioned to learning, working, receiving medical care, and entertaining ourselves at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, one thing has become clear – far too many students and families are without affordable options to get online. As we wait for Congress, the FCC, and private enterprises to make the investment necessary to close the digital divide, we encourage schools and libraries to consider existing options including hotspot programs that can help fill the gap not only today, but also possibly long term.
Cassie Bair serves as the Chief Business Development Executive at Mobile Citizen. Mobile Citizen offers low-cost internet access with unlimited data plans to educational institutions, nonprofits, and social welfare agencies.