Connecting Students at Both School and Home Must be a National Priority

Before the pandemic, 16.9 million kids fell into what was dubbed the “homework gap.” Essentially, these students had access to the internet and the educational resources it affords while in class but not when at home. Many were forced to use Wi-Fi at fast-food restaurants or rely on the library to do their schoolwork.

In 2020, the “homework gap” became a “learning gap” as schools and businesses shut down. Suddenly, millions of American students were not just struggling to finish their schoolwork, they were struggling to take part in learning at all.

It was a rude awakening for parents, teachers, school districts, and state leaders – and some of the most vulnerable student populations paid the price. In the midst of the coronavirus surge, researchers tried to measure what was happening to our nation’s kids.

Models predicted an overall learning loss of 6.8 months because of a reliance on online learning. That prediction was much higher for vulnerable and minority populations. For low-income kids, the anticipated loss was 12.4 months; for African American children, the anticipated loss was 10.3 months; and for Hispanic students, it was 9.3 months. But once all is said and done, it is likely going to be more than anyone expected, and will have ramifications for years to come.

Now that Americans are being vaccinated at record levels, many schools have opened their doors to at least partial in-person learning. Still, the problem of “how to connect America’s K-12 students” persists.

Imagine the first time a student has a temperature or a bad cough. He or she will likely be sent home as a precaution, and without access, that student will again lose out on learning. You can see how easily this problem could spiral out of control.

That’s why we must address the need for connectivity BOTH on the home front and at school – and make it a national priority.

A Two-Pronged Approach

Even as classrooms went completely remote, teachers relied on what their school networks could offer: providing access to internet services and resources, and ensuring students and teachers were using secure internet connections.

The program I run – Connect K-12 – is focused on providing school districts and state leaders with the information they need to expand and improve those internet networks. Each year, school districts and libraries are eligible for Federal E-rate funding. Connect K-12 is a free resource that aggregates, analyzes, and visualizes E-rate data so leaders can negotiate better pricing for school connectivity.

Connected Nation believes that means working toward meeting the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recommendation of 1 Mbps per student – which can truly support digital learning in every classroom, every day. It allows for teachers to access the instructional resources they need to prepare students for an increasingly digital world, and it provides the bandwidth needed for student devices.

The reality is that it’s now rare to find a chalkboard in a modern classroom. They simply are no longer used in most schools, replaced instead by digital learning tools.

It’s also clear that we can’t ignore the needs of students at home. The “homework gap” must be tackled. Internet access in the classroom and at home is essential to training the next generation of our workforce. Not only do students need access at home to take part in the classroom, but to continue to build online software skills to be competitive. Students of all ages are expected to be savvy enough to manage an online schedule, plus multiple platforms and portals. Word and PowerPoint just don’t cut it anymore.

It’s one reason why Connected Nation partnered with AT&T for the K-12 homework gap program, which provided hotspots and free services to 35,000 at-risk kids across the country. Those awardees were announced in late February.

It’s also why we applaud the efforts of government entities and other organizations working to address this gap, including EducationSuperHighway, which is now working to establish its K-12 Bridge to Broadband program, the USDA Rural Development’s long-standing telemedicine and distance learning grants, and the provisions included in the American Rescue Plan which contain state and local funding that can be used for broadband. The rules governing this are expected to be announced on or around May 10.

Although still under negotiation, the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan – also called “the infrastructure bill – currently includes $100 billion for broadband. It seeks to “future proof” high-speed internet, focuses on “underserved” households, i.e. those who have internet but at lower speeds and bandwidths than needed for modern tech, and emphasizes price transparency and public disclosure of rates. Overall, the President has said he’s seeking to connect 100% of American households.

At the same time, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB Program)  is now being stood up by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Once ready this program will provide a discount on broadband services and equipment to qualifying families.  However, internet service providers must opt in and the service is temporary. A longer-term solution is still needed.

The future of schools will likely mean a hybrid of what we’re seeing now – some kids getting in-person instruction while the rest of the class is at home. Also, all of the newly acquired software that teachers relied on during a nationwide quarantine isn’t going away, even when it is safe again for 100 percent in-class learning. So, we must improve our school district’s bandwidth capabilities while also addressing the need for at-home access for every student.

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that connecting our kids is not something we can wait on doing for even another day. Everybody belongs in a Connected Nation.

Learn more about Connect K-12 at connectk12.org.

About Emily Jordan
Emily Jordan is the vice president of Connect K-12. She manages external relationships with key stakeholders at the state and Federal levels of government, including governors’ offices, education agency heads, and like-minded advocacy and membership organizations. Emily helps state education leaders and K-12 public school districts improve school connectivity and make progress toward the FCC’s 1 Mbps per student bandwidth goal.