How Congress and the FCC Could Help Millions of Students Access Remote...

Opinion | Policy and Government

How Congress and the FCC Could Help Millions of Students Access Remote Learning

By John Harrington     Apr 15, 2020

How Congress and the FCC Could Help Millions of Students Access Remote Learning

In the year 2020, amid a global pandemic, millions of American students are struggling to get online to do their schoolwork and communicate with others. There was already plenty of pressure on these students to perform well in school, and now there is extra anxiety because of COVID-19.

With no guaranteed end in sight, we need Congress to take swift and decisive action to empower the federal E-rate funding program to support off-campus learning devices and connectivity, delivered via secure internet access.

Along with the rest of society, K-12 students are facing a new challenge. They have been asked to work from home and practice social distancing, which is a challenging task for many. For some students this task is impossible, because they lack the basic Wi-Fi access or devices necessary to keep them connected.

Let’s be clear: You cannot take an online class, participate in online discussions, conduct online research, use online software or submit online homework if you lack internet access. To be able to learn online, one must be able to get online.

The swift closure of school districts across the U.S. has left millions of students cut-off from the digital world. These learners are at a serious disadvantage because they cannot do their schoolwork at home—or worse—they must leave home to find Wi-Fi in a parking lot, or have paper assignments delivered in-person, putting lives at risk. This is not right. We do not have to accept this glaring void in our digital society, nor should we.

There is a way to right this wrong. The technology exists and is available to bridge this gap. Our K-12 schools and public libraries are ready to do their part; and the mechanism exists to equitably and efficiently distribute funding via the existing federal E-rate program, which provides schools and libraries with money for internet access but is currently too limited in scope to be of much use in our current crisis. With a few basic changes to telecom regulations, the Federal Communications Commission could immediately start helping students get connected. And with a one-time infusion of $5.25 billion dollars towards this effort, Congress could dramatically alter the landscape and bring immediate relief to millions of K-12 students and teachers.

We do not know how long the current COVID-19 outbreak will last. Private businesses have generously donated goods and services, but we can’t count on this indefinitely. It is not enough to hope that this ends soon, or that we will not have to travel this path again. An immediate, reliable solution is needed that can last for an indefinite time period.

Our schools and libraries need it. Our students and communities deserve it. Congress must acknowledge that online education can take place anywhere a Wi-Fi connection exists. It is time that Congress and the FCC allow E-rate support of off-campus educational activities.

Congress needs to act now by authorizing the E-rate program to support connected learning devices, off-campus internet connections, and comprehensive cybersecurity. We estimate that $5.25 billion would provide adequate support for the next year for schools and libraries to provide connected learning devices, like laptop computers, with secure Internet access via mobile hotspots, cable modems, and other types of connections.

To provide some relief, Congress already has invested $2 trillion dollars, primarily to directly support business and the economy. Given the circumstance, these actions are appropriate—and so, too, will be a relatively modest investment in our nation’s future, our students, by providing $5.25 billion to the FCC.

Congress should empower the FCC to help by eliminating the prohibition against off-campus learning and by allowing the E-rate program to support connected devices and secure networks. With a new filing window, using the existing application process for “Category Two” E-rate support, Congress and the FCC could connect our nation’s students so that no matter what the future holds, they will not have to worry about how to get online to do their homework and attend school.

No matter their circumstance or location, students deserve the opportunity to get online to learn. The time is now. Please let your Congressional representatives know that you support E-rate funding for off-campus educational purposes by signing the petition.

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