- As discounted hotspot programs phase out, school leaders worry low-income families will have difficulty maintaining access to the internet during school closures, District Administration reports.
- Options remain, however, with one expert noting that some companies plan to continue $10-a-month programs beyond COVID-19. While plans vary, some only require families to fill out applications showing students are on free or reduced-priced lunch — though in some cases, hardware is still backordered.
- District leaders will need to evaluate their monetary needs going forward and determine what type of support they can receive from the CARES act. While some of the funds will be needed to shore up budgets, a portion of these expenses could potentially be earmarked for E-Rate program support through legislation proposed in the House of Representatives.
Ensuring all students can connect to the internet so learning can continue during pandemic-related school closures has been a challenge for many districts. Many have dedicated significant funding to doing so, with Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, approving $100 million in late March to provide internet access to all students. At the time, about 25% of the district's students lacked access at home.
But a number of service providers have also stepped up to offer discounted services. The Federal Communications Commission has assisted on this front by temporarily waiving the E-Rate program's gift rules, allowing participating schools and districts to receive free broadband, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other services and gear needed for online learning.
Future Ready Schools also urged educators to sign a letter requesting FCC Chairman Ajit Pai expand the E-Rate program's coverage to include home internet service. Before the coronavirus forced learning online, 12 million students fell into the homework gap because they didn’t have internet access at home, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Further compounding the problem, many rural districts have students in remote areas where service providers don't yet have broadband infrastructure in place to provide high-speed internet. Some also lack cell towers to tether hotspots to.
Even when internet is available, getting students to show up for online classes remains a challenge for some. A mid-April survey of educators found 35% of respondents reporting online class attendance is as low as 0 to 25%. Another 55% of teachers say only half of their students were attending. Michigan had the highest rate of online absences among states surveyed, with 62% of respondents saying less than a quarter of their students attended.