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What Coronavirus-Stricken Schools Want From the Feds Next: Online Learning Help

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There have been three coronavirus aid packages signed by President Donald Trump so far, and two of them have important effects on issues like like child nutrition and schools' cash flow. So if there's a fourth aid package—and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said another is necessary—what will education groups push hard for?

We already know at least one answer: They want more resources and freedom to help students connect to the internet and learn online. The lobbying on that front has been underway for a couple of weeks now, yet so far it's mostly come up short, even as schools have scrambled to connect their students with some kind of learning experience.

So what are education groups looking for on this front? Let's divide up the answer into two tracks:

Congress

On March 23, a coalition of education groups weighed in to support a $2 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund in House coronavirus legislation that would have funded Wi-Fi hotspots to help students connect away from school, internet-connected devices for students and staff, and mobile broadband internet access.

Citing the millions of students without home internet access and the inability of most districts to provide "loaner" hotspots, the groups told Congress, "This is making it impossible for too many students to continue their school year while their connected peers move forward with their studies." Other groups pressured Congress on this front through different avenues.  

The House bill turned out to be useful for Democrats in large part as political leverage, although not on this particular front; Congress passed a Senate coronvirus aid bill instead on March 27, which Trump signed the same dadoes not contain such a connectivity fund.


See: Education Week's Map of Coronavirus and School Closures


Here's one important caveat: Schools got $13.5 billion in the latest coronavirus package, and they're allowed to spend it on helping students connect online to learn remotely. But that's an allowable use of the money; there's no dedicated aid for that purpose in the bill for what the groups above want. And scoring dedicated aid for a particular issue or program is a crown jewel of federal lobbying. 

In addition, as state and local budgets start to struggle due to the pandemic's economic disruption, the pressures on how to use that $13.5 billion will grow intense. Also check out this letter to the Senate from AASA, the School Superintendents Association, anticipating another round of coronavirus aid, on this issue. 

Federal Communications Commission

Three days before that letter, the State Education Technology Directors Association wrote to the FCC asking it to help schools respond to the virus. A few of those requests include: 

  • "Clarifying that schools may allow their Wi-Fi networks to be used by the community without losing E-rate funding."
  • "Making emergency funding available from the Universal Service Fund for hot spot lending programs operated by schools, libraries and other community organizations in areas where schools and libraries close."
  • "Opening a window for rural schools and education organizations to obtain rural EBS [Educational Broadband Services] licenses."
  • "Providing supplemental funding for Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) to deploy wireless broadband in unserved areas where schools are closed, if the WISP can demonstrate that it can do so within a few days' or weeks' time and more quickly than any other provider."
  • "Extending all compulsory E-Rate deadline" for various items. 

The FCC has acted on the first and last bullet points, but it hasn't granted the significant flexibility—and additional funding—many schools say they desperately need at the moment. Other groups have joined SETDA in similar efforts with respect to the FCC.

"We will continue to advocate for funding in the next round of aid and to the FCC to consider flexibility in the program and funding for access," Christine Fox, a spokeswoman for SETDA, said on Monday. 

It's important to point out here here that the E-Rate program that helps schools and students connect to the internet does not get money from Congress through the standard appropriations process. 

'Fight Like Hell'

So what happens next? Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy, said education groups should take two steps. First, what education groups should do in the next few weeks, he said, is focus on the FCC in order to try to get some additional regulatory relief; they don't need to wait for lawmakers to return to Capitol Hill to do that, he noted.

Then, he said, as Congress starts to ramp back up, education advocates who want more backing for online learning should also "continue to fight like hell to get some additional emergency resources out of Congress." Based on the House bill, he said, there are important lawmakers in that chamber, at least, who could help educators' cause. And Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was asking the FCC to help schools with respect to the coronavirus nearly a month ago. 

But timing matters here: The House and the Senate will be out until April 20. If that schedule holds, it's almost certainly going to be several weeks before Capitol Hill crafts, debates, and (possibly) passes another coronavirus aid bill.

Even if money for student connectivity makes it into the bill, when would the cash actually reach districts and other relevant organizations? Mid-May? Early June? How much of the school year would be left by that time for the schools that are still in session at all? Would that money still help a lot?

Leichty said that even if the resources might not help some students who are stranded right now at home without good or any access to the internet, it is still worth getting money from Congress.  

"K-12 leaders have been calling on Congress to address these problems for years. Low-income students are at a disadvantage if they don't have broadband at home," Leichty said. "The public has awoken to this issue all of a sudden because it's not just poor kids, it's all kids."

Photo: Anna Louisa, 18, receives her school laptop for home study at the Lower East Side Preparatory School after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tightened health and safety rules in the state. --John Minchillo/APKirby Lee/AP


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