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Keeping K‐12 Students Online and Learning – There’s a Plan for That

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 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of April 13-17, 2020

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

As of April 13, 2020, school closures in the U. S. have impacted at least 124,000 public and private schools and affected at least 55.1 million students. Yet, millions of U.S. households either do not have access to broadband networks or can’t afford service. Students in these homes are cut off from educational opportunities that schools are now offering online only. The question is: How can we continue to educate these students in the coming weeks and months? In an April 10 presentation to the Federal Communications Commission, an organization called Funds For Learning offered a plan. The group believes that swift action by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could get disconnected students into online classrooms quickly. E-rate, this is your moment. 

With anchor institutions across the country closing their physical doors for public safety, schools are struggling to keep their digital doors open to serve their communities. — John Windhausen Jr., SHLB Coalition

What is the E-Rate?

With funding from the Universal Service Fund, the schools and libraries universal service support program, commonly known as the E-rate, provides discounts for telecommunications, Internet access, and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries.

Eligible schools, school districts, and libraries may apply individually or as part of a consortium. Funding may be requested under two categories of service: category one services to a school or library (telecommunications, telecommunications services, and Internet access), and category two services that deliver Internet access within schools and libraries (internal connections, basic maintenance of internal connections, and managed internal broadband services). Discounts for support depend on the level of poverty and whether the school or library is located in an urban or rural area. The discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services. School districts and library districts pay the rest of the costs. E-rate program funding is based on demand up to an annual FCC-established cap of $4.15 billion.

The E-rate program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the FCC. Specifically, USAC is responsible for processing the applications for support, confirming eligibility, and reimbursing service providers and eligible schools and libraries for the discounted services. USAC also ensures that the applicants and service providers comply with the E-rate rules and procedures established by the FCC.

How Can E-Rate Meet the Online Learning Demands of the Pandemic?

Funds For Learning is proposing that Congress provide $5.25 billion to boost E‐Rate funding and support connectivity to online classrooms. This financial support would be available for off-campus Internet access, connected learning devices, and cybersecurity for school and library networks. In conjunction with this, the FCC could:

  • Update the list of services eligible for E-rate;
  • Adjust category 2 budget factors;
  • Waive its standard 28‐day bidding requirements;
  • Open a special filing window; and
  • Direct USAC to issue funding commitment decisions based solely on minimum processing standards and applicant self‐certifications. By waiving the typical precommitment application review process, the support could begin flowing not long after the applications were submitted.

Funds For Learning notes, however, that the primary regulatory change necessary to enable the E‐rate program to connect students to online classrooms is the presumption that “educational purposes” is limited to a school or library campus. The E‐rate supports educational purposes, defined as “activities that are integral, immediate, and proximate to the education of students, or in the case of libraries, integral, immediate and proximate to the provision of library services to library patrons.”  The regulation specifically presumes that these activities will only occur on‐campus.

“This is an outdated assumption and it is no longer applicable,” notes Funds For Learning, “a fact that has become particularly clear in the last few weeks.”

Funds For Learning proposes that the FCC keep the definition of educational purposes the same but eliminate the default requirement that it occur on‐campus.

Why Is E-Rate Best Suited to be the Solution?

Funds For Learning is proposing a $5.25 billion bet that E-rate is the best vehicle to quickly connect students. Why?

The need to connect students to the Internet by supporting schools and libraries completely aligns with the existing mission of the E‐rate program. Connecting students and teachers to the Internet is quite literally what Congress intended when it created the E‐rate program in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Furthermore, because the program is currently up and running, E‐Rate is available to begin receiving requests almost immediately. Applicants are familiar already with the forms and systems necessary to complete E‐Rate paperwork and there are designated staff in place to prepare the necessary filings.

This will produce faster results and fewer mistakes than if an entirely new system of rules and procedures were rushed into production.

Keep the Digital Doors Open

New America has recently highlighted the E-rate’s potential to close the digital divide during the crisis. In a filing at the FCC, New America’s Open Technology Institute explained that the agency already has the authority — and $2.2 billion already set aside for the E-rate — to immediately extend broadband access to millions of K-12 students who lack broadband internet service. OTI also urged the FCC to waive restrictions on the use of school or library broadband networks supported by E-rate to extend connectivity to students off-campus for educational purposes. 

John Windhausen Jr. — the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition — noted this week that the Philadelphia public school district prohibited online instruction because some of their students cannot afford Internet access. A Wall Street Journal op-ed highlighted a similar situation in Berkeley, California. Districts in Kentucky and Washington state have also chosen not to go online because of equity issues. 

As Congress considers additional legislative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, 18 U.S. senators, a coalition of 7,664 education leaders, and numerous public interest groups have written that the E-rate program should pay for residential broadband connections since home is where the students are now. These supporters identify E-rate as a solution for good reason — E-rate has a long track record of success and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Windhausen writes, “With sufficient E-rate funding, schools and libraries could extend their broadband networks to get these students online, as well as millions of library patrons. By taking one small step to permit E-rate funds to connect homes, the FCC could take a giant leap to advance its top priority and fulfill its universal service mandate.”

Where’s the FCC?

In a “telephone town hall” with Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) on the role of technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said, “Our longstanding digital divide has morphed into a monstrous new COVID-19 divide for these young learners. We must connect these young learners with devices and Wi-Fi hotspots or fixed internet so that they don’t get further behind. And the time is now.”

Speaking in a Brookings Institute webinar on the digital divide on April 8, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted the authority that Congress has already given the FCC to address the disparity between students with home internet connections and those who don’t — a divide she calls the homework gap. “Let’s be creative with that authority and use it so every student can get connections,” she said. “And we can do that with lots of things by helping support broadband at home, or having schools use the e-rate program to loan out Wi-Fi hotspots.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has loosened E-rate rules meant to prevent fraud and abuse, but has taken additional action to expand the program’s impact during the pandemic. Instead, he’s looking to broadband providers: “[W]e strongly encourage service providers and equipment makers to partner with schools and libraries to provide mobile hotspots and other broadband-enabled devices to students to help bridge the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Students will have to wait and see if broadband companies, as encouraged by Pai’s, “step up.”

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