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In October I shared the news that the classroom connectivity gap in U.S. schools is effectively closed. More than 99 percent of schools nationwide have access to speedy and reliable internet, making online learning an option for their students.
Only, now it doesn’t matter. School buildings are closed because of coronavirus, and the bandwidth that powered digital learning for kids is going unused. Now, the most important connectivity statistic is that more than 9 million students do not have internet access at home.
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Educators have known about this problem for a long time. Teachers routinely modify their homework assignments to make sure that students without home internet will not be at an unfair disadvantage. Families have, for years, parked outside of businesses that offer free Wi-Fi or taken their children to libraries to find a way to complete assignments that do require the internet. Schools have gotten creative, sending students home with Wi-Fi enabled devices or hotspots that let students connect their own laptops to the internet. They have outfitted school buses with Wi-Fi so students can do their homework on the way home.
But those efforts have been piecemeal, and it has become very clear the nation’s students need a comprehensive solution.
EducationSuperHighway, the nonprofit that declared victory in the effort to connect 99 percent of the nation’s schools to high-speed internet, has pivoted to solving what has become known as the “homework gap.”
Evan Marwell, CEO and founder of EducationSuperHighway, told me in October he didn’t plan to tackle the homework gap, and last week he said it was because there hadn’t ever been a clear pathway to solving it.
“We’ve never believed there was the political will to solve this problem,” Marwell said.
Now, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have introduced legislation to spend billions on home internet connectivity for the nation’s students. Foundations are stepping up to provide funding so schools can purchase devices and hotspots for the students who need them. And the level of advocacy and support for a solution has snowballed.
Marwell’s track record on the school connectivity gap made him an obvious person to turn to when policymakers and school officials were faced with the dire consequences of the homework gap as the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close. His team launched a new website, digitalbridgek12.org, with information about the scale of the problem and recommendations for school officials and policymakers ready to take action. Many schools have no idea how many students lack home internet access or exactly which ones. Digital Bridge K-12 has a guide for collecting that data. There is also help for districts looking for internet service providers, good deals, and information about helping families sign up. And for schools that have never sent devices home with students before, there’s recommendations for launching device loaner programs.
On the policy side, the website has advice for state legislators and governors thinking about their role in all of this. They can help districts collect the connectivity data they need to get started, coordinate bulk purchasing programs so schools can get better deals on devices and hotspots, and connect districts to share best practices, among other things.
Marwell said his team is leading pilots in districts and states to refine methods of assessing who needs internet access in a given community. They are also creating tools that schools can use in the months to come to sign families up for home internet through service providers and get information about the best deals.
Marwell is pleased to see senators and representatives in Congress lining up behind emergency funding. But he thinks long-term policy changes will be necessary, too.
“The reality is, this is not going to be a one-and-done kind of thing,” Marwell said. “This is the first pandemic. There are scenarios where schools are going to need to close from time to time because of this or because of other emergencies and we need to be ready to make sure that kids can keep learning when schools are closed.”
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!
This story about EducationSuperHighway was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.