Coronavirus closures expose the digital divide in US schools

The Federal Communications Commission may need to step in to widen access to reliable broadband for low-income communities

With coronavirus now being named as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), governments, businesses and public institutions are taking drastic measures to minimise the spread of the illness. The USA is no exception, with Trump yesterday announcing sweeping travel restrictions on Europe following 1,135 confirmed cases of the virus across the US, resulting in 38 deaths (at the time of writing).

On top of this, three Washington State public school districts – Northshore, Meridian and Snohomish – closed off their buildings to almost 36,000 students combined earlier this week.

But according to representatives of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the rapid surge in school closures across the United States are exposing fundamental equity gaps in access to technology and the internet, prompting experts to say that the FCC should step in, according to US News and World Report.

“Now is absolutely the time to talk about the coronavirus disruption and how technology can help,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

“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.”

FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks also told attendees: “With social distancing and even quarantine being required, as they may soon be in many American communities, broadband connections will become even more vital.”

With schools across Washington State and elsewhere potentially staying closed for as long as a month, it’s imperative for education leaders across the country to consider their institution’s remote working capabilities. While many are geared up to offer classes online, many others do not have the necessary infrastructure or facilities in place.

“The FCC should be convening broadband providers right now to prepare,” Rosenworcel added. “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.”

Starks went on to suggest that the FCC could play a pivotal role in keeping quarantined people connected to the outside world and bridging the digital divide. He recommended that the FCC accelerate approval of experimental licenses to grow existing wireless networks, pressure carriers to deliver cell towers on wheels to the most vulnerable US communities, and launch a “connectivity and economic stimulus” to speed up broadband deployment in these areas.

In related news: Keep calm and trust in edtech: tools to support teaching amid coronavirus closures

“Everyone in the telecommunications sector must step up,” added Starks. “The time is now. Americans are going to need broadband in their homes – to help them tele-work and to keep the economy strong; to help them understand medical information, and potentially connect with medical care via telemedicine; and to help our youngest learners continue to grow.”

During the hearing, Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, emphasised the need to close the “homework gap”, which refers to the millions of students who do not currently have access to the internet at home.

According to a study by the Associated Press (AP) from June last year, almost three million students across the US do not have access to the internet at home – amounting to about 17% of all US students.

“Obviously the coronavirus has further highlighted that gap,” commented Van Hollen. “You have some schools around the country closed. 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.”

Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, sent a letter to FCC chairman Ajit Pai last week, urging him to distribute emergency resources to support temporary connectivity, particularly in low-income communities which often bear the brunt of the digital divide.

“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 the letter.

“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. 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 school work become necessary due to COVID-19 closures.”

According to US News, Cantwell’s letter is yet to receive a response.

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