The number of schools that say they are providing students with home internet access has dropped dramatically in the past year, according to newly released survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Forty-five percent of public schools say they are still offering home internet to students. That’s down from from 70 percent in September of 2021. The survey included 900 schools.
Such a decline will have major consequences for the millions of children who do not have home internet or are at risk of losing it as schools step back from their pandemic-era roles as de facto internet providers and brokers.
Even though the vast majority of students are back to attending school in person, they still need reliable home internet to fully participate in their education, whether it be completing homework assignments, getting virtual tutoring, or attending remote classes during inclement weather.
The pandemic also led to a surge in technology adoption, said Jack Lynch, the chief operating officer for EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that advocates for better broadband access for homes and schools, which is putting more pressure on students to be connected at home.
“As the whole K-12 ecosystem has gotten more comfortable with technology in the classroom, digital learning, using these digital tools—which is a good thing overall—we need to make sure every student can access it equally and equitably,” he said.
Internet affordability, rather than a lack of access to high-speed broadband infrastructure, is the number one reason millions of students don’t have the internet at home, according to a report by EducationSuperHighway.
Around 15 million students lacked access to the internet at home at the beginning of the pandemic, said Lynch. Although more students most certainly have access now, it’s unclear how much that number has changed, and Lynch said there persists a sizable number of students who remain unconnected.
Well before this year, K-12 leaders and advocates for more equitable broadband connectivity were worried that as federal COVID relief aid ran out and partnerships forged during the height of the pandemic between school districts and internet service providers expired, millions of students would lose their home internet.
Schools are likely stepping back from offering home internet, whether it be through providing mobile hotspots or by brokering internet deals for families with local internet companies, because federal COVID-relief aid is running out, said Lynch. Plus, he said many schools were never well-equipped to fill this role in the first place.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t any federal money available to families to pay for broadband, it’s just not flowing through schools to families.
One major new source of funding is the Affordable Connectivity Program, which gives eligible households that apply $30 discounts toward their monthly internet bills. Subsequently, a number of internet providers have committed to offering $30 a month plans, said Lynch, effectively making the internet free to many low-income households.
Even if schools are no longer actively providing home internet, they still have an important role in getting and keeping families connected, he said, primarily by educating families on what their options are, said Lynch.
“Awareness about the ACP is very low nationally,” he said. “Only about 25 percent of eligible households are even aware that the program exists. Without being aware that the program exists, you’re never going to sign up for it.”
‘Not a Very Equitable Solution’
While the percent of schools offering home internet to students has dropped substantially, the percent of schools providing public hotspots to students outside the home—such as in a library or a parking lot—has increased slightly. Fifty-six percent said they are offering internet hotspot access to students in locations other than their home at the beginning of this school year, up from the 49 percent of schools this time last year. But that setup is far from ideal for most students, said Lynch.
“That’s better than nothing,” he said. “But it still requires the student to be able to transport themselves to where ever this spot is, and sit there for however long they need to use the internet. That is not a very equitable solution.”
Nearly all schools in the survey—94 percent—are giving laptops and tablets to students who need them, which is slightly down from the 96 percent of schools who said they were doing the same at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.
The NCES survey also asked schools if they are teaching their students digital literacy. Seventy-two percent of schools said yes, and a quarter said they are also providing digital literacy training to their students’ families.