Limited Internet Access Poses Challenge for 12 Million Students as Coronavirus Pushes Classes Online

March 17, 2020 Updated: March 17, 2020
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As schools from Seattle to New York City shift classes online in response to the coronavirus threat, millions of students are caught in what’s known as a “homework gap,” because they are unable to access to their new online classrooms due to a no or poor internet connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The “homework gap” is a term that refers to barriers students face when they work on school assignments without a reliable internet connection at home. According to an FCC report (pdf) from late February, as many as 12 million children from rural, urban, and suburban communities across the United States experience homework gap because they live in households that lack broadband access.

“It’s time for the FCC to talk about the coronavirus disruption and how technology can help,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said during a Senate hearing on March 10. “Nationwide we are going to explore the expansion of tele-work, tele-health and tele-education. In the process, we are going to expose some really hard truths about the scope of the digital divide.”

In Washington State’s King County, which has become ground zero in the United States following the country’s first coronavirus death, Northshore School District asked teachers to help students familiarize themselves with the virtual learning platforms and make sure they are “equipped with a device and wifi” prior to the school’s closure. Students who don’t have computer or internet connection at home will be assigned to school computers, and if necessary, with wifi hotspots.

But not every school is as prepared as the Northshore School District, as Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) pointed out in her letter (pdf) to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, in which she urged the agency to take necessary steps to help students keep up with their online schoolwork.

A similar effort came up on Monday, when a group of Democratic and Independent senators called on the FCC to immediately allocate funds to help students who lack the internet connection they need. The lawmakers want the federal agency to free up some of the E-Rate fund, which is a $2 billion internet connection subsidy for schools and libraries, and use the money to provide wifi hotspots to students who lack internet access at home.

“This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency,” wrote Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who created the E-Rate program in 1997. “We call on you to use the FCC’s emergency powers to narrow the homework gap during this crisis, and we look forward to finding a long-term solution when the coronavirus subsides.”

Rosenworcel welcomed the proposal, writing on Twitter: “The FCC can fix this #homeworkgap with a program for schools to loan out wifi hotspots. It needs to do it now.”