Millions of students who were unable to participate in virtual learning because of poor home internet connectivity when the pandemic struck a year and a half ago were handed a temporary lifeline, thanks in large part to federal COVID relief funds, which helped cover devices and broadband access for students in need.
But that money will likely run out after this school year, potentially leaving students in the lurch. Fifty-seven education organizations—including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—asked congressional leaders in an Oct. 7 letter to provide $4 billion in additional relief in an ambitious budget bill that lawmakers are scrambling to find agreement on.
The legislation—whose price-tag could be in the trillions of dollars—may also encompass many of the Biden administration’s priorities, including expanding universal free pre-kindergarten and offering students two years of community college for free.
The so-called “homework gap”—which disproportionately impacts poor students, students of color, and those living in rural areas—has been a persistent problem since long before the pandemic struck in March 2020. In fact, as many as 16 million students and 400,000 educators lacked sufficient connectivity to participate in online learning since COVID-19 began, according to an Oct. 7 letter the groups sent to congressional leaders.
But when kids were completely unable to attend school because they didn’t have access to virtual learning, the federal government allowed districts and schools to use a portion of the more than $180 billion in federal COVID relief funding to purchase devices and hotspots that could be used to help connect teachers and students at home, among a broad range of other purposes.
Congress also provided an additional $7.1 billion for an Emergency Connectivity Fund, which flows through the E-Rate program, long used to connect schools and libraries. So far, districts have applied for about 70 percent of those funds, or a total of $5.1 billion. The money has been used to pay for 9.1 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections, the letter says.
But when those dollars stop flowing in June of next year, it’s an open question where money will be coming from to continue kids’ and educators’ home connections.
“Schools and libraries will have to come up with some way to pay for it themselves, which they haven’t budgeted for,” said Jon Bernstein, president of the Bernstein Strategy Group, which represents the American Federation of School Administrators and co-chairs the Homework Gap Big Tent Coalition.
Local and state governments may be able to help pay for the extension out of leftover COVID relief dollars or other funds. But if that doesn’t happen, “kids will lose access again,” Bernstein said.
That means, the letter said, that “students could find their online courses interrupted, their research projects and homework assignments impossible to complete, and their relationships with educators and peers shut down.”