Many Students Still Lack Home Internet. Here's How Big the Problem Is.
The vast majority of school district leaders and principals say at least some of their students still don't have sufficient internet access at home for remote learning. And most educators believe the U.S. government should be providing more funding to ensure that's no longer the case.
Two recent surveys reflect strong convictions among educators that the level of home internet access in the communities they serve continues to be inadequate. With millions of students learning from home as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the urgency to resolve those issues remains very high.
Slightly more than two-thirds of district leaders and principals say they need government funds for purchasing hotspots or home Wi-Fi for families, according to a nationwide EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in late September and early October.
Only 11 percent of respondents to that survey said all students in their school or district have the level of home internet access they need to fully participate in remote instruction.
Seven months into a pandemic that has upended every facet of the American education system, those are staggering figures.
State governments, with budgets that heavily depend on local economies that have taken a major hit during the pandemic, can only provide limited resources to advance internet access expansion efforts. The federal government's larger pocketbook could go further, and more than half—54 percent—of school district leaders and principals believe it should, with a commitment to universal broadband access, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.
Will the federal government step up?
Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan group of state and district education leaders, released a report Wednesday calling for a federal commitment to universal broadband access. The group highlights local efforts to improve internet access in various states, but argues schools don't currently have the resources to comprehensively solve the problem on their own.
"Without a holistic solution, our nation will end up with a patchwork of initiatives that offer varying degrees of access at best, and that perpetuate historical inequities and threaten our collective prosperity at worst," the report reads.
One federal mechanism for expanding internet access is the existing E-Rate program from the Federal Communications Commission, which supplies funds for schools to extend Wi-Fi service to their physical buildings. But FCC chair Ajit Pai has repeatedly declined since March to grant schools permission to use E-Rate funds to extend internet access to neighborhoods surrounding schools, even as homes have become classrooms for millions of students.
Pai's reluctance is out of step with educators' view on the issue, according to an annual report from Funds for Learning, an organization that helps schools navigate the E-Rate program. Among more than 2,000 schools and libraries that participate in the E-Rate program, a whopping 93 percent said they would use E-Rate funds to get students connected at home if the FCC said they could. More than 8 in 10 respondents to that survey said they've received little to no fiscal support for remote learning since the pandemic started.
The public thinks the problem is urgent.
There's widespread public awareness of these issues beyond educators themselves. In a September poll by Morning Consult and the Internet Innovation Alliance, 95 percent of voters said internet access for students and teachers is a problem, and more than 60 percent said broadband access more generally should be an "immediate" concern for Congress.
Approximately half of Americans are even willing to "pay a little more" money if it means extending broadband access to those who don't currently have it, according to the poll.
Efforts are underway at the federal, state, and local levels to address internet access gaps, and bills to expand those efforts have support from some members of Congress. Some stopgap efforts have run into unforeseen obstacles, though. In Austin, school buses that had been serving as Wi-Fi hubs in neighborhoods now have to go back on the road to bring students to school buildings. Portable Wi-Fi hotspots have helped some families but caused troubleshooting headaches for others.
There's some reason for optimism. A quarter of school leaders surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center said it's "very likely" all of their students will have adequate internet access by the end of the school year, and another quarter said that prospect is "somewhat likely."
That still leaves 37 percent, however, who say it's somewhat or very unlikely that the digital divide will be eliminated by the end of the school year.
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