Coronavirus School Closings Expose Digital Divide

The mounting school closures amid the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. are exposing major equity gaps in access to technology and the internet, and the FCC needs to step in, according to FCC commissioners.

“Now is absolutely the time to talk about the coronavirus disruption and how technology can help,” Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, said Tuesday during a Senate hearing. “Nationwide we are going to explore the expansion of tele-work, tele-health and tele-education, and in the process we are going to expose some really hard truths about the scope of the digital divide.”

Those hard truths are playing out in real-time in Washington state, where 34 schools and three school districts have closed, some for as long as a month. And while a handful of them are taking their classes online, many others aren’t due to the students varying levels of access to technology.

“The FCC should be convening broadband providers right now to prepare,” Rosenworcel said. “It should be identifying how it can use universal service powers to support connective care for quarantined patients and how wifi hotspots can be available for loan for students who have schools that have shut and classes that have migrated online.”

The Global Coronavirus Outbreak

Geoffrey Starks, another FCC commissioner, joined Rosenworcel in emphasizing the important role the FCC could play in stemming the coronavirus outbreaks and keeping communities forced to quarantine connected to the outside world.

“The FCC and communication networks have an integral role to play in responding to coronavirus,” he said. “With quarantines being required, as it may be soon in many communities, broadband connections will become ever more vital. Everyone in the telecommunication sector must step up and the time is now.” “Americans are going to need broadband in their homes to help telework to keep the economy strong, to help understand medical information and potentially connect with medical care via telemedicine to help our youngest learners continue to grow,” Starks continued. “The FCC must join immediately with efforts that bring broadband into homes impacted with COVID-19.”

Some examples of things the FCC could do, he said, include lending hotspots to schools and libraries, setting up mobile hotspots in low-income neighborhoods and establishing temporary access to FCC’s Lifeline Program, which provides low-income families with telephone service.

“There should be no American that is cut off from connectivity because of costs,” Starks said. “It’s going to be really important that we lean into hotspots.

“During the hearing, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, stressed the need to close the so-called “homework gap,” which refers to the approximately 12 million students who do not have access to the internet at home and because of that are at a significant disadvantage in completing schoolwork.

“Obviously the coronavirus has further highlighted that gap,” said Van Hollen, who introduced a bill last month that would take a portion of the proceeds from the FCC’s forthcoming 5G auction and direct the funding to underserved communities in order to help close that so-called homework gap.

“You have some schools around the country closed,” he said. “They’re trying to arrange distance learning and homework over the internet. Obviously those students who are not connected are put at a huge disadvantage and there are some students who don’t have a computer at home.” Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, sent a letter last week to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asking him to deploy emergency resources to allow for temporary connectivity, especially in low-income communities where internet access is harder to come by.

“I believe that the Federal Communications Commission is uniquely positioned to respond to some of the challenges posed by COVID-19 just as it has in the past with disaster response,” she wrote in a letter dated March 6, noting that under the direction of President George W. Bush, the FCC took emergency action in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “There have already been week-long school closures in Washington state and it is likely that other school closures of uncertain duration will occur around the country,” she wrote. “I request that the FCC consider whether temporary measures using its authority under section 254 of the Communications Act of 1934 could be used to facilitate at-home connectivity for students to keep up in class should remote schoolwork become necessary due to COVID-19 closures.”

Cantwell’s office said it has not received a response.

At the hearing Tuesday, Pai did not directly address providing temporary access to schools to help bolster online access to coursework amid the coronavirus outbreak, other than to say in opening remarks that the FCC’s top priority is to close the digital divide, especially in rural areas.

“That’s a crisis,” Rosenworcel said of the 12 million students without internet access at home. “But now with the coronavirus we have real duties to figure out how to help get those kids online. Because when their schools shut down and their classes migrate online they are at the greatest risk of being left behind.”

By Lauren Camera is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.

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