FCC waives E-rate gift rules as coronavirus closures highlight remote learning inequity

Dive Brief:

  • The Federal Communications Commission this week announced a temporary waiver of E-rate program gift rules, allowing schools and districts participating in the federal telecommunications and information services discount program to receive free broadband, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other equipment and services as the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic closes schools and pushes the need for remote learning.
  • In a press release, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted the increasing need for schools to embrace remote learning amid prolonged closures, adding the commission “strongly encourage[s]” service providers and equipment makers to partner with schools and libraries to close the digital divide. 
  • Future Ready Schools, a school innovation-focused initiative of the Alliance for Excellent Education, is also urging educators to sign a letter petitioning Pai to expand the E-rate program’s coverage to include home internet so students can continue learning while schools are closed.

Dive Insight:

Prolonged school closures related to coronavirus are now the reality nationwide. While many districts — particularly those with more affluent student populations — may have had infrastructure, devices and plans in place for remote learning, the truth is that great inequity around home internet and device access persists for a sizable portion of the nation’s students at both the individual and community levels.

Even still, schools that did have the resources in place likely weren’t prepared to go all-in on this level, or this fast, and tracking participation will remain a particular challenge. For some rural schools located in regions where a lack of regional infrastructure can limit broadband access, and for low-income schools or districts overall that may not yet have these resources, the challenges of remote learning are even more pronounced.

Factor in that many parents may also now be dealing with layoffs or furloughs and may not be prepared to essentially serve as homeschool facilitators, and the prospect that this could become a period of lost learning for many students is very real.

The FCC estimates that approximately 12 million students fall into the homework gap, meaning they lack home internet access to complete digital assignments. Along with Future Ready Schools’ effort, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) has also sent a letter to the FCC requesting students be connected for remote learning. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a longtime advocate of closing the homework gap, has also stated that the crisis puts the nation “at risk of leaving too many kids behind.”

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