President Joe Biden put student home connectivity front and center when he tapped Jessica Rosenworcel as acting commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. The agency is best known to educators for its work overseeing the E-Rate program, which helps provide broadband access to schools and libraries across the country.
Rosenworcel, who worked for Democrats on Capitol Hill before joining the FCC in 2012, coined the term “homework gap” to describe the difficulty millions of students—particularly poor, minority, and rural kids—have in getting online at home to complete school assignments. She drew attention to the problem long before COVID-19 catapulted it to one of the highest priorities in K-12 education.
At the start of the pandemic, which forced nearly every district to do some virtual learning, as many as 15 million of the country’s 50.7 million public school students lacked adequate connectivity to learn online at home, a Common Sense Media survey found last spring. What’s more, 10 percent of public school teachers nationwide also did not have sufficient internet capacity for online learning, the survey found.
Under Rosenworcel’s leadership, the FCC is exploring broadening the E-Rate to allow the funds to be used for home connectivity. Rosenworcel’s predecessor during the Trump administration, Ajit Pai, repeatedly rejected requests to expand the program to help students gain access to the internet at home.
Education Week asked Rosenworcel how she plans to use her new role at the FCC to tackle digital equity issues.
You coined the term “homework gap.” You’ve worked on the issue of home connectivity for years. Why is this a key issue for students and schools?
When I joined the FCC, I decided that I would visit some schools that were E-Rate beneficiaries when I was traveling for work. And something struck me: I wound up in big cities and in small towns, in urban America and rural America, but I heard the very same things from teachers and administrators no matter where I went: The E-Rate program is great. Our classrooms have internet access, but when our students go home at night, not all of them have reliable internet access at home. The more that I talked to teachers, the more I heard the same stories over and over again: Kids sitting in the school parking lot with school laptops they had borrowed late into the evening, trying to peck away at homework because that was the only place they could get online. Or kids sitting in fast food restaurants and doing their homework with a side of fries.
I looked at the data and I found that seven in 10 teachers would assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband at home. I call this the “homework gap” because it is a portion of the digital divide that deserves a name because it’s so important. It’s becoming apparent that every student needs internet access to complete schoolwork now.
And then enter the pandemic. We sent millions and millions of kids home. We told so many of them to go to online class, but the data suggests that as many as 17 million of them can’t make it there, so now this homework gap is becoming an education gap—and I worry it can become a long-term opportunity gap if we don’t correct it.
How do we ensure kids remain connected after the pandemic? After all, it was called the homework gap because that’s what it was essentially about—homework, not necessarily virtual learning.
It wasn’t that long ago that every student didn’t always get textbooks or a grammar workbook. We must start recognizing that for students who don’t have internet access at home, having the school loan out a wireless hot spot is the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. We can do something to fix this. It’s why we’re in the process of evaluating how we can update the current E-rate program to meet the moment students and families find themselves in.
In addition to addressing the affordability issues that keep families offline, we also have deployment challenges—in other words, there are parts of the country where there is little to no broadband access. But what’s crazy is that the FCC doesn’t have a clear picture of where broadband is and is not. Of course, you can’t fix a problem you can’t measure. It’s why one of my first actions as acting chairwoman was the creation of a Broadband Data Task Force at the FCC to help us build the most accurate, up-to-date maps of where broadband service is offered throughout the country.
We know poor, minority, and rural kids are particularly impacted by the homework gap. What’s the FCC’s role in helping those students?
Maybe you’ve seen kids during this pandemic who are struggling without the broadband access they need for remote learning. They’re unable to head to virtual classrooms and participate in online education. Even when in-person class is in session, they wrestle with nightly schoolwork that requires internet access. You may find them—in rural and urban communities—sitting in parking lots or other public spaces where the wireless signal is free just to connect and keep up with their education.
This Homework Gap is an especially cruel part of the digital divide. It affects children in rural communities and low-income households nationwide with recent data suggesting as many as one in three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students lack high-speed internet access at home. It’s time to do something about it. It’s why some of my first actions as acting chairwoman was to start the process of updating the E-Rate program to better meet the needs of students who rely on their schools as their main internet connection. I’m also proud that the FCC is on its way to setting up our nation’s largest initiative to help low-income families better afford internet access through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which will provide $50 to $75 monthly discounts for families struggling to get online during this pandemic.
The FCC recently asked for comments about whether it should expand E-rate to allow the funds to be used for home connectivity. What’s your next step in this process?
Right now, we’re reviewing comments we’ve received from a broad range of stakeholders. This record will help the FCC consider next steps to meet the moment we’re in—one where digital connectivity isn’t just limited to in the classroom, but the ability to participate in the virtual classroom and complete assignments.
Congress earmarked $7 billion for broadband access in the COVID-19 relief bill, which was moving toward final approval this week. How might the FCC ensure that this money is well-spent when it comes to both devices and connectivity?
Ultimately, like any congressional action or appropriation, the FCC will follow the law as Congress writes it. This pandemic has taught us like nothing before that broadband is no longer a nice to have, it’s a need to have, for everyone, everywhere. That’s especially true when it comes to students trying to keep up in classes that have gone virtual.
A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Acting FCC Chair: The ‘Homework Gap’ Is an ‘Especially Cruel’ Reality During the Pandemic