To let students learn remotely amid school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the FCC must expand high-speed internet access, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger said Thursday.
The Central Virginia lawmaker is leading the House of Representatives’ push to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to use its broad emergency powers to temporarily waive rules on its E-rate program. In normal times, E-Rate helps schools and libraries gain affordable access to the internet via discounts of 20 to 90 percent.
Lack of home access to the internet has long been an issue for many Virginia families, including in more rural places such as Culpeper, Orange, Madison and Rappahannock counties. What experts call the “homework gap” hinders online learning in the best of times. With all Virginia schools closed at this point in the pandemic, the issue has ballooned to become a major problem for public and private education.
Across the United States, about 12 million students lack reliable broadband connectivity in their homes, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee. And as of 2019, 27 percent of rural residents did not have reliable access to high-speed broadband internet, the Pew Charitable Trusts say. In the Culpeper area, that percentage is likely much higher, local officials have said.
“Student success should not be determined by ZIP code, and at a time when schools need to be focusing on keeping their children safe, families shouldn’t be forced to worry about how their children will be able to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to broadband,” the legislators said in asking for the FCC’s immediate action.
Responding to parents’ and school officials’ concerns, Spanberger led 52 of her colleagues to write FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking for the agency’s help during the national crisis.
With Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Stacey E. Plaskett (D-USVI), Spanberger wrote the joint letter imploring the FCC to immediately provide one-time discounts for Americans’ home wireless service. The requested change would enable schools to receive funding to provide home broadband access, as well as wi-fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices for students who lack internet at home. Doing so would be “of immense help to schools, students, and families at this time,” the House members wrote Pai.
Allowing one-time, temporary E-Rate discounts would help schools seeking to loan equipment to students without internet at home, and those trying to equip school-distributed devices with WiFi capability that can be lent out while physical classes are on hold, the four dozen lawmakers wrote.
They urged the FCC to consider designating $2 billion in remaining fiscal 2020 E-Rate for those purposes.
“During the current health crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that if schools are dismissed, schools should consider implementing e-learning programs, including digital and distance learning options like online lessons—options that often require reliable access to broadband connectivity,” the House members wrote the FCC chief. “The CDC also urges schools to determine how to deal with students who potentially lack internet connectivity at home.
“Currently, many students who lack access to broadband at home complete their out-of-school assignments at public places with connectivity, such as restaurants or local businesses,” the lawmakers said. “However, CDC guidance also directs schools to discourage students from gathering in restaurants or shopping malls—presenting a further challenge to students who do not have broadband access in the home.”
“The success of our students and the opportunities afforded to them should not be based on where they live,” the legislators wrote. “... We (must) take steps to ensure that all students can learn from home and that parents do not feel pressured to expose their children to contagions so that they can access public wifi to complete their schoolwork.”
The Spanberger effort parallels a similar move led by U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, Michael Bennet and Brian Schatz. They and 13 other senators also wrote the FCC last week.