IT Infrastructure

School Districts Seek Billions in New Federal Money for Connectivity, FCC Announces

By Alyson Klein — August 25, 2021 2 min read
Image shows two children ages 5 to 7 years old and a teacher, an African-American woman, holding a digital tablet up, showing it to the girl sitting next to her. They are all wearing masks, back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
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Earlier this year, Congress approved more than $7 billion to help schools close the so-called homework gap. And it turns out that school districts in every state want a piece of that funding.

The Federal Communications Commission announced Wednesday that it received $5.1 billion in requests for the aid in the first round of applications, which were due Aug. 13. The money—known as the Emergency Connectivity Fund—was approved in March as part of the broader American Rescue Plan, which was aimed at helping the country recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

The funding can be used for laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connections for students and school staff to use off-campus. It is also available to support learning outside of the school building, including homework, even if students have returned to full time in-person instruction.

“The Emergency Connectivity Fund is the single largest effort to bring connectivity and devices to students who lack them—and this robust response from applicants shows the tremendous need in our communities,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC in a statement.

If all $5 billion in projects is approved, the fund will still have about $2 billion left for other projects. The FCC announced Wednesday that it is opening a second application window, which will run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 13, to support connectivity at schools and libraries during the 2021-22 academic year.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, 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. What’s more, 10 percent of public-school teachers nationwide also did not have sufficient internet capacity for online learning, the survey found.

Education advocacy organizations have argued the funding should be a regular part of the federal budget, not just a one-time thing.

“School districts and state departments of education are working hard now to persuade Congress to make the emergency connectivity fund permanent,” said Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy, who advocates on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking. “Making the fund permanent is absolutely essential to how we deliver education 2021 and beyond.”

In fact, following the announcement, a coalition of groups representing schools and libraries, including AASA, the School Superintendents Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the International Society for Technology in Education, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association put forth a statement urging Congress to pass legislation that would provide $8 billion a year to continue the fund, for five years.

Separately, the U.S. Senate approved bipartisan legislation earlier this month that includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure. While none of the funding is specifically directed at schools and libraries, if approved, it’s bound to help students and teachers get connected so they can complete work at home, Leichty explained. That’s partly because the bill targets those parts of the country that lack the structure to make things like hotspots work, he said.

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