Utah's Murray City School District was relatively lucky when COVID-19 forced students across the country to begin learning from home. Every one of its more than 6,000 students already had their own personal Chromebooks, sparing them from last spring and summer's mad rush for computing devices that had suddenly grown scarce amid global supply chain disruptions.
Even in a district where every kid had a laptop, though, about 13% of Murray's households still couldn't get online last year, said Jason Eyre, technology department coordinator for Murray schools.
There were a number of reasons for that. Some lived in apartments where Comcast's low-cost broadband plan wasn't available. Others came from large families that lacked the necessary bandwidth to support multiple students' Zoom school sessions at once.
The district was unable to overcome those challenges in the early days of the pandemic. But this school year, Eyre tried a new, ambitious approach: setting up the school's own LTE network so kids could connect to from home. "Now, there are some economically-challenged students who are having connectivity where they've never had it before," Eyre said.
The COVID crisis has highlighted both the severity of the so-called "homework gap" and the shortcomings of early remedies like mobile hotspots and even low-cost home broadband plans. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, schools and cities across the country are increasingly testing novel ways to get students connected, not just for the duration of the pandemic, but for the long term.
As schools search for new ways to get kids online from home, Congress recently allocated nearly $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for the Federal Communication Commission's E-Rate program to help with remote learning. While E-rate has traditionally covered on-campus internet and devices, the new Emergency Connectivity Fund is specifically designed to help reach students at home and close the homework gap. "It's a huge deal," said Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that has been working on closing the digital divide for students for years.
According to the Consortium for School Networking, school districts in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Utah are all setting up their own private wireless networks to offer students a higher quality connection than hotspots can provide. In Oakland, the city is working with EducationSuperHighway on a project to bring its fiber network to four low-income apartment buildings where a substantial number of students on free and reduced lunch plans live. Marwell, Eyre and others are watching closely to see whether the new E-rate funding will cover projects like theirs — projects they argue are just as urgently needed as hotspots and laptops.
But it's still anyone's guess whether the FCC will allow schools to use the E-rate money for those projects. FCC Press Secretary Paloma Perez said that the commission has until May 10 to put forward rules for the Fund. Perez said the commission has "no further details to share quite yet," but noted the FCC is currently seeking public comment about the fund and what to consider in the rule-making process.
At the start of the pandemic, the Consortium for School Networking began working with 12 school districts to get a better sense of the student experience of learning from home. The association found that although many students had a mobile device that worked for in-classroom learning, they didn't have the bandwidth they needed to connect to a remote classroom.
"It wasn't just a gap or divide — it was a chasm," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium.
The early rush to get hotspots and low-cost broadband plans to students' homes made sense at the time. But stories soon abounded of students being unable to use their hotspots and LTE-connected devices in dead zones, and some parents were wary of signing up for home internet for fear of getting hit with hidden fees and bigger bills down the line.
The cost of subsidizing so many individual wireless plans also quickly proved to be an unsustainable long-term fix for school administrators, Marwell said. "School districts are doing the math and saying, 'Wow, that's a lot of money I need to come up with every year to pay for the 20 million-plus kids on the free and reduced lunch program,'" he said. "Are there solutions where we can pay one-time capital instead of recurring monthly costs to solve the problems?"
According to Krueger, dozens of districts, including Murray, are now taking advantage of Citizens Broadband Radio Service, a band of spectrum that allows schools to license frequencies on a monthly basis, rather than paying the huge upfront costs of spectrum licensing. Because the radio spectrum bands are dedicated to the school district, they can be used to offer a higher quality connection than Wi-Fi hotspots.
"Some districts are working with the private sector to put an antenna on the school's roof and they cut a deal where the company provides free internet to low-income families for educational purposes. But the companies are also selling a higher level of service, where if the families want Netflix or something, they would have to pay for that," Krueger said.
Some school district leaders are also working with municipalities to set up mesh networks to cover entire towns in suburban settings, Krueger said. In remote areas, administrators are relying on satellite connectivity, a costly option that is often the only one those schools have got.
"Some technologies are going to work better in certain areas than others," Krueger explained. The key, he argued, is for government funding to be flexible about whichever option works best for a given school.
"When this money runs out [...] because it will run out within a year or maybe a little longer, investing in these long-term solutions will position districts better," Krueger said.
That's the thinking behind Oakland's pilot program with low-income housing complexes. That project is being spearheaded not by the school district, but by the city, which already has its own fiber network. If city officials can convince landlords to pay for the initial installation fees and provide Wi-Fi to all of their tenants for free, Oakland will have not just provided connectivity to students in need, but to the many unconnected adults who live in the city too.
"The theory is: It's the same people, right? We can target students, and most likely their parents are struggling," said Andrew Peterson, chief information officer for the city of Oakland. "If we target those low-income houses, most likely there's going to be Oakland Unified School District students in those houses."
It's still unclear, however, whether such a project would be eligible for reimbursement from E-rate. "I think you're going to see school districts arguing these things should be eligible and internet providers arguing they shouldn't," Marwell said.
Indeed, Verizon filed a comment to the FCC, imploring it to use the funding only for "eligible equipment," including "Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, and 'connected devices' such as laptops and tablets." Similarly, T-Mobile called on the FCC to "prohibit the use of ECF funds for costly and time-consuming construction of new networks" in its comments. School districts like LA Unified, meanwhile, have submitted comments asking for the funds to cover "all hardware and software necessary to support safe and appropriate remote teaching and learning."
"My suspicion is the FCC is most likely to come out and say: 'We don't have enough time to put the proper safeguards in place,'" Marwell said of non-traditional connectivity projects.
Those safeguards are important. While $7.2 billion is a substantial amount, Marwell argued, it will disappear too quickly if it's used to pay for overly expensive devices or for connecting students who already have internet access.
"One of the things some people are arguing for is schools should be able to get this money to reimburse them for things they've spent money on over the last year. If the FCC decides to do that, at least half the fund is going to go poof on Day One," Marwell warned.
For now, both Eyre and Krueger are taking advantage of the FCC's public comment period to push the agency to broaden the scope of projects that E-rate supports. "Hotspot and internet-enabled devices won't solve every student's problem," Krueger said.