A year after the pandemic struck, the government has finally laid the groundwork to help students and their families who have been struggling with remote learning.
Two bills were passed: one from the final days of the Trump administration and the other from the current Biden administration. The implementation of these two bills is expected to finally shed some light on the dismal “homework gap” problem made worse by the pandemic.
In April 2019, Jessica Rosenworcel, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner at that time and now the acting FCC chair, has already mentioned the existing “homework gap” problem in rural America, urban America, and many other places.
First in the line of help is the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed by former President Trump last December 27, 2020. Under this act, $3.2 billion will be allotted for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The said program aims to provide a monthly internet service discount worth $50 to eligible families, $75 for those residing on tribal lands, and a one-time $100 discount for purchasing electronic devices. Eligibility requirements for the said program include being one of the following: parents of children receiving free school meals, Pell Grant beneficiaries, people whose income plummeted since February 29, 2020, and those who qualify for the participating provider’s low-income or COVID-19 program.
Reinforcement to the first phase is the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021. An Emergency Connectivity Fund of $7.171 billion was approved to provide for schools and libraries as they extend their connectivity to allow nearby students and staff to connect wirelessly.
Millions of Americans are expected to benefit from the two measures, but the number is not yet certain. Paloma Perez, press secretary for Rosenworcel, has said in an email that the FCC has not yet released a statement on the estimated number of household beneficiaries.
Results of a survey conducted by Morning Consult in early March show that 16% of white adults with annual income less than $50,000 had missed paying their internet bill in the last year, and that same data was found to be 27% among Black, Latino, and other non-white adults.
Nicol Turner-Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, a centrist policy institute in Washington, raised her concern about the possible lack of awareness among people regarding the program. She advised promoting the new Emergency Broadband Benefit to people with the help of social-service agencies.
The director of technology and innovation policy at the American Action Forum (AAF), Jennifer Huddleston, suggested making the application process simpler. She also encouraged policymakers to take into consideration the need of providing electronic devices. She emphasized the need for enough devices for all the students in a single household who simultaneously have to deal with remote learning.
AAF’s Huddleston’s concern about providing devices was seconded by John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, a Washington advocacy nonprofit. He also warned about the possibility of families receiving double subsidies, which he identified as an area of concern.
In some parts of the US, the issue at hand is with the availability of broadband internet connectivity, which is not covered by the two new programs. Fortunately, a bill that could address this problem was set forth by democrats, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Jim Clyburn. The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act will focus on building broadband infrastructure nationwide with proposed funding of $80 billion.
Regarding broadband internet availability, future connectivity solutions with higher capacities such as low-Earth-orbit satellite broadband and 5G wireless technology were put forward by AAF’s Huddleston.