Overnight, high-speed, reliable home internet access suddenly became essential to the work of teaching—and most teachers are paying for it out of their own pockets.
As school building closures in nearly every state stretch to the end of the school year, almost all teachers are doing at least some online instruction. They’re hosting video conferences with their students, uploading videos and class materials to online platforms, and in some cases, exceeding their data plans.
Yet a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey found that just 1 percent of teachers said their school or district was paying for their high-speed, wireless internet at home.
And that raises the question: Should schools foot the bill for teachers’ home internet access?
“Ideally, districts would be able to pay for high-speed home broadband for teachers—in my opinion, always,” said Sabia Prescott, a policy analyst for New America, a think tank in Washington. But “that’s not something that’s feasible for most districts.”
Nearly all teachers—96 percent—have wireless, high-speed internet at home that they pay for themselves, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. (Four percent of teachers, mostly in rural areas, don’t have high-speed, wireless internet at home and make do during the current school shutdowns with mobile hotspots or even working in parking lots or empty school buildings.)
To help ease the burden, some teachers and advocates have called for more school districts to chip in on internet and cellphone bills.
“The first few weeks of this, it was surprising how much people just assumed teachers could do this—that every teacher had internet, had a data plan, had a place in their house where they could teach,” said Kelly, a special education teacher who requested that her last name and the name of her school not be used.
She has the internet in her home now, but for the first six years of her career, she lived in a small studio apartment without internet access.
“If it had been a year ago, I don’t know how I would be getting through this time,” she said.
The 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated the ability for employees who work from home to write off unreimbursed business expenses—such as internet bills and data plans—on their taxes. Teachers can still deduct up to $250 annually for books, supplies, computer hardware and software, and other supplementary materials that they purchased for their classrooms and were not reimbursed for by their districts.
Of course, offsetting the cost of teachers’ internet would be an additional expense for districts at a time when they’re bracing for draconian budget cuts due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, some district leaders are committing thousands of dollars to help cover their teachers’ internet bills during this pivot to remote learning.
In Millsap, Texas, a small town about an hour from Fort Worth, the choices for internet and cellphone providers are limited, said Deann Lee, the superintendent of the school district there. Unlimited data plans aren’t always an option, she said.
Lee uses a portable WiFi hotspot at home, and even though she often works from her office at the empty administration building, she still runs out of data quickly these days.
“I knew if I was going through data that quickly, then so were the teachers and paraprofessionals,” Lee said.
She had heard of a superintendent in Gunter, Texas, offering a stipend to teachers to cover internet costs, so Lee decided to do the same in her district for all 175 staff members. In April and May, all teachers and paraprofessionals received a $50 stipend to help offset their internet and cellphone costs. Custodians and maintenance workers also received the same stipend for gas, since they are still required to drive to school buildings to work.
It’s a way to “show support and appreciation, as well as help financially,” Lee said.
Teachers are working harder than ever, said Matthew Gutierrez, the superintendent of the Seguin, Texas, school district. The district’s 500 teachers each received a $50 internet stipend in both April and May.
“Their world was turned upside down overnight,” he said. “I felt that there was just a lot of stress and sadness surrounding the school closures, and so not only to boost morale but to honor the work that they’re doing to meet the needs of students, … I felt the need to acknowledge their work.”
The district is in a suburb of San Antonio, and teachers there have reliable access to the internet, Gutierrez said. Still, he knew some teachers were likely exceeding their cellphone data plans to connect with students.
“Although the $50 a month isn’t a lot,” Gutierrez added, “it’s something to show that at the school district, I acknowledge the extra that they are doing, and I acknowledge the fact that they are extremely stressed right now.”
‘Do What We Can Right Now’
New America’s Prescott said one reason that more districts aren’t paying for their teachers’ internet is that they don’t know how long this period of remote learning will continue. Initially, schools across the country had planned to close for just two weeks, and now it’s been two months. State and district leaders aren’t yet sure when or how they’ll be able to reopen school buildings.
And although the federal government has given schools a $13.5 billion infusion through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, some analysts have said that districts will need billions more dollars to prevent mass teacher layoffs and other severe cuts. Federal lawmakers have not yet signaled if they’ll give schools another round of emergency money.
Lee, the superintendent in Millsap, said she expects that her district will have a blended approach to learning in the fall, with some teachers working remotely by choice and some working remotely for three or four weeks upon any exposure to the coronavirus. She thinks she’ll be able to continue paying those teachers a stipend for their internet, either through the CARES Act, state funds, or Title I money for teachers in schools with that designation.
Also, paying for teachers’ internet now is a sign of goodwill, especially if district leaders have to make cuts next year, Gutierrez said.
“The economy is taking a huge hit, and I don’t know how things are going to look in a year—there might not be a possibility to do a salary increase,” Gutierrez said, adding that his district might continue the internet stipend through the fall if needed. “Let’s do what we can right now while we can.”