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The homework gap could worsen for millions of U.S. students in July 2022, when the Emergency Connectivity Fund expires – with no concrete plan to extend it.
The program received $7.17 billion in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan in April 2021 to enable school districts and libraries to provide internet access and connected devices to students and educators during the pandemic. Funding runs out on June 30.
As of Dec. 7, districts and libraries had requested $6.4 billion from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, launched by the Federal Communication Commission earlier this year. The first two rounds of funding have connected approximately 10.6 million students across the country and supported 7,535 schools, 692 libraries and 91 associations on over 7.1 million connected devices and nearly 3.5 million broadband connections, according to the FCC.
While the summer is still months away, the program’s pending expiration is already raising alarms for educators. Without adequate internet access and a working device at home, educators say, many students will continue to fall further behind in school, unable to do online homework or attend virtual classes when schools are disrupted by pandemic quarantines or natural disasters. The homework gap will grow worse.
“There’s plenty of data showing that student performance has been negatively impacted [by the pandemic],” said Phillip Lovell, associate executive director at the education advocacy nonprofit, All4Ed. “Especially for the students who’ve been historically underserved and who are the least likely to have the high-speed home internet access that they need for extra help.”
That extra help from the ECF program was needed at the Highline Public School district near the Puget Sound in Washington state, where about two thirds of students are considered low-income and a third are English language learners. Susan Enfield, the district’s superintendent, said the district requested almost $10 million from the program. Providing students with access to online resources helps ensure they can keep learning, even away from the school building — whether they’re completing nightly homework assignments or submitting research papers. Online access for families has also helped the district engage parents.
“I fear that with this loss of funding, we’re going to go massively backward,” Enfield said. “Our ability to keep our kids connected with home broadband access, I believe, is one of the most significant issues that we’re grappling with right now.”
Although the Emergency Connectivity Fund is currently included in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion spending plan, known as the Build Back Better bill, legislators have cut the allocation during negotiations to get the bill passed this fall. The original Build Back Better plan unveiled in the House included $4 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The final version that recently passed the House laid out $300 million.
The decrease is worrying advocates who had hoped for long-term relief for an issue that’s worsened during the pandemic.
“That’s a big haircut,” said Lovell. “While we appreciate the $300 million and hope that it will stay, we know that we’re going to need a lot more.”
If Congress doesn’t provide additional funding by July, the ability of millions of kids to keep up in school will be severely hindered, he said. Children of color, who data shows fell farther behind academically last year, will be hit disproportionately hard when money for home devices and broadband goes away.
“We need every resource deployed to help students get back on track,” Lovell said. “It would really be adding insult to injury if we end up taking away internet access from the students who need it most.”
Lovell said kids can’t afford more disruption: The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which helped establish the ECF, didn’t pass until a year into the pandemic.
“There was a whole year that went by without the Feds stepping in a meaningful way to address the homework gap,” said Lovell. “Those connections could go dark again due to congressional inaction.
Even as they lobby for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, advocates say the fund is a stop-gap measure. They argue funding for high-speed internet and connected devices needs to be a permanent part of federal policy. Long-term, funding for devices and connectivity for low-income children must be part of how “we finance our education system,” Lovell said. “Every child has the right to go to school. Going to school means having the internet.”
In Puget Sound, Enfield agrees. “I think that the pandemic has really shown us that universal broadband access is a fundamental equity issue,” Enfield said.
“I just think that it’s unconscionable for us to go backwards on something that I believe has significantly helped level the playing field for children across this country by making sure that they could access their learning anytime, anywhere. I just don’t see how we can take that back. It just feels so wrong.”
This story about the Emergency Connectivity Fund produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter